Tag Archives: smile

The American Embassy

We went to the American Embassy in St. Petersburg today.

It has golden arches and serves Биг Мак and гамбургер (That’s Big Macs and hamburgers).

Seriously though, the McDonalds menu is almost identical in Russia—all the food items are transliterated in Cyrillic, even my филет-о-фиш (fillet-o-fish), and there really isn’t anything uniquely Russian.

The McFlurrys (Макфлурри), though, do come in different flavors: chocolate-caramel and chocolate-cherry. I tried chocolate-cherry. It did not disappoint.

The restaurant itself, across from Pushkinskaya Metro Station, is rather upscale by American McDonalds’ standards.

It boasts free Wi-Fi, and dinner time saw a crowd of well-dressed Russians besiege the cashiers (lines work a bit differently here), while others, mostly student-looking types, sat on brown faux(?)-leather stools and chairs and pecked away at laptops perched on bright white tables.

Country music played in the background as families enjoyed their fast food, wrapped in packages identical to their American counterparts, except for the Cyrillic script.

Even the friendly McDonalds atmosphere seemed to infect the joint, to a point—the cashier smiled as I fumbled the Russian words for chocolate-cherry, and thanked me after I had paid for my ice-cream drink and fish sandwich, in English!

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Potatoes for Dinner

We’re making potatoes for dinner tonight. I’d make a joke about how that’s typical Russian cuisine or something, but Russia actually has a pretty rich culinary tradition. I don’t know too much about it though, at least in part because I don’t eat meat.

But the whole Russia and potatoes (or vodka, etc) joke is the sort of comedy I’m going to try to avoid.

As much as I write about the differences between Russia and home, differences magnified by a difficult foreign language, St. Petersburg and its people have many of the same characteristics as big city denizens throughout the world. Sure, they smile less readily and they’re a bit quieter, but on the whole, the differences are minor.

Of course, people are more attuned to difference than similarity. And it’s also those differences that make foreign cultures so unique and interesting. So while I’ll keep blogging about the unique quirks that make St. Petersburg an interesting place to be, I don’t want to give anybody the impression that there’s a huge divide between “our culture” and the culture here.

Smiling

Russians don’t smile. Not the ones that work in the service industry, anyhow. The uniquely American, “Thanks, and have a great day” doesn’t seem to have hopped on the boat to St. Petersburg with McDonalds and Pizza Hut.

At the metro, after you pass your 20 rubles through the window, they don’t even look at you before shoving a gold metro token at you. If, god forbid, you fumble for the correct bills or coins, several Russians are liable to push by you to purchase their entrance fares.

I’ll admit, it’s not like the Metro employees in D.C. are known for their friendliness either, and I’m sure they’ve put off more than one foreign tourist. But subway workers aren’t the only unsmiling ones.

I’ve already written some about the difficult cashiers at the Paterson supermarket, or универсам. From our travel guide, we recently learned that they’re colloquially referred to as гром баба, or thunder women. Makes me feel a bit better to know that Russians also incur their wrath.

Now, the woman I bought tea (another weapon in the continuing war against jet lag) and some food from today seemed nicer, or at least more low key. But she, too, hassled me as I tried to count out correct change (when the smallest common coin is 50 kopecks, that can be particularly tough). And I also learned that she spoke English—when she told me “You too slow” as I tried to put my change away while simultaneously juggling my purchases, because I had decided against purchasing another 6 ruble plastic bag.

We managed to steal a smile from a waitress today, however.

Restaurants and cafes in Russia are notorious for lacking many of the items listed on the menu. _____ нет, there isn’t any _____, is a common phrase for waiters and waitresses. Typically, food is ordered and delivered with as few words exchanged as possible, with the obvious exception of multiple “нет”s. There’s no friendly banter nor facial expressions, perhaps because tipping expectations are minimal, except in the fanciest establishments (apparently, in smaller cities, tipping means that you want to sleep with the waitress. Here, they’re more used to it.).

This means that the waiters won’t constantly bug you, asking you how your food is, or trying to move you along to make room for another table. It also means that they won’t ask you if you want something else, or offer you another bottle of water or soda—the savvy Russian restaurant-goer orders his whole meal, including dessert, upon sitting down.

There were six of us at the restuarant today, ordering Пироги, or Russian pastries, filled with anything from apple or orange to meat and fish. I actually went for a strange fried egg, cheese, and tomato dish, but only because the pastry I wanted – нет. So much of what we ordered was out that after asking for the umpteenth item and hearing the umpteenth нет, we finally earned a smile, and perhaps even a little laugh, from the waitress. Either that, or she was laughing at our mangled pronunciations of Russian food items.