5/8/09 – 23:00
A short flight over the Gulf of Finland, a deep blue bordered on all sides by green, set the scenic backdrop for our arrival in St. Petersburg. As we came over the city, its pervasive grayness—a slightly outmoded industrial quality—filled the hazy air. Power lines, massive apartment blocks, and factory complexes stretched through my field of view as the plane descended to Polkovo airport on the city’s outskirts.
On deplaning, we were greeted by a short, stern-faced man who said nothing as he pointed his temperature gun at each of us; no “Welcome to Russia” here, but thankfully, no swine flu either.
Past customs, the mood lightened considerably as we were met by Саша (Sasha), our Russian discussion instructor from first semester. From there, we threw our bags into a small truck with a green-canvas-covered bed and settled into a white mix between a van and a bus for our ride to Капитанская Улица (Kapitanskaya Street), situated right on the Gulf of Finland.
As we drove, St. Petersburg came into focus as a city, it’s character clearly unbounded by the industrial grayness that I saw from above. We passed a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a giant statue of Lenin, whose name the city once bore. Monuments to Tsars and Soviet soldiers filled the centers of enormous circles that seemed to give the traffic—everything from old Ladas to modern Porsches and Toyotas, and even a few American cars—some semblance of order.
Numerous supermarkets, markets, drug stores, convenience stores, clothing stores, and sundry other shops lined the streets, their gaudy signs advertrising their wares, and often, their 24/7 schedules. We strained to decipher the letters on some of the fleeting signs, and painstakingly sounded-out cyrillic filled the bus-van, accompanied, sometimes, by cheers marking the recognition of a remembered vocabulary word. Frequently though, the names were comfortably familar; Кафе (café), суши (sushi) and бар (bar) were only the tip of the iceberg.
But the city, what little of it we explored in our first hours in Russia, hummed to a beat distinct from anything that might be suggested by superficial sign similarities.
Shopping for food was a fascinating, and humbling, experience. Tomato sauce, of the kind we are so used to in America, was impossible to find at the supermarket we went to. Also missing were spices, crackers beyond a single brand, and all the many styles of granola bar that are ubiquitous at home.
Eggs are packed 10 to a carton—strange.
The checkout aisle marked our first linguistic challenge. As the cashier rang up our bread, cheese, pasta, and massive jugs of water, she asked us if we wanted bags. We quickly declined, only to realize a few seconds later what we had done. Bags being an unfamilar word to us, we couldn’t figure out how to ask for them, except by pointing to one after the cashier had finished ringing us up.
Plastic bags (пакеты – a word I will not soon forget) cost six rubles, the cashier snarled. She waved away Tom’s 100 ruble bill, demanding exact change. The phrase «I just arrived and only have large bills» not being a part of our vocabulary, Tom dug around and handed the cashier a coin that said 5 and another that said 1. Her annoyance visibly increased at being handed a ruble and five kopecks, the cashier finally, mercifully, accepted Tom’s 100 ruble bill (worth, roughly, $3), and doled out all 94 rubles in change, pissed as hell. We quickly shoved our purchases into the bag and escaped, chastened and nervous for future shopping encounters.
Pre-planning vocabulary became the order of the day for our other big purchase – a map of the city. Fortunately, the vendor in the magazine stall was more understanding of our limited Russian skills, and the smoothness of this exchange provided a much-need confidence boost. Tom also managed to buy a memory card reader from an electronics kiosk located in, of all places, a pet shop.
Tomorrow, to wipe out jet lag, we plan to get up around 8 a.m., in plenty of time to go watch the Victory Day parade through the city center.