I’ve mentioned my fellow data researcher, Rachel, in an earlier blog (Do I need a visa?). Since then she’s been to Russia and was happy to share some of her experiences. Enjoy! Mark
It’s just over three years since I left St Petersburg after five months at the St Petersburg State University and I hadn’t been back since, so jumped at the chance when ECA wanted someone to collect data there. It seems fitting that my first blog should be about the city where I was once an expat myself, even if the life of a penniless student is hopefully rather different from that of a salaried expat!
Founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, St Petersburg was once the capital of Russia and remains an important cultural, historical and financial centre. Renamed as Petrograd and Leningrad under the Soviet Union, the city reverted to its former name of St Petersburg in 1991. Known as Russia’s “Gateway to Europe”, “Piter” remains one of the most Westernised of Russian cities, albeit keeping a very Russian character.
Having lived there, I had the benefit of knowing the best places to head for my data collection. First port of call was Nevsky Prospekt, the main artery of St Petersburg with most of the major shops. On this trip I was delighted to discover the brand spanking new “Nevsky Centre”, which has become many expats’ store of choice. New since my time, it is a Western style shopping mall with a large Stockmann’s department store and a well-stocked supermarket with lots of imported goods (I even managed to find Campbells tinned soup, previously unheard of in St Petersburg!). The other popular expat supermarket, Land, is in the Vladimirsky passazh but I think Stockmann has a better selection and wish it had been there when I lived there! Also along Nevsky is Gostiny Dvor, the city’s oldest and largest shopping centre; stretching across a massive 53 000m2, it is a treasure trove of everything the wealthy of St Petersburg could possibly desire, at prices to match! Great for the authentic “Russian” shopping experience of small boutiques with glass topped counters. Another personal favourite is Dom Knigi (house of books), the big bookstore opposite the Kazan cathedral. Housed in a big domed building which used to belong to the Singer Company, it is very popular with tourists and locals alike as it has several floors and a wide range of books, plus a rather nice café on the first floor. I should say though, that for English language books Bukvoyed has a better selection and is open 24 hours! Shops in St Petersburg are open surprisingly late.
Nevskt Prospekt also has a good selection of places to eat. Local cuisine is often composed of as much meat and starch as possible to help get through the cold winters, always flavoured with considerable amounts of dill. Currently though, one of the most surprisingly popular cuisines in St Petersburg is Japanese, namely sushi. So popular is the sushi craze that you cannot walk more than a few paces along Nevsky Prospekt without finding at least one sushi outlet.
Like the West though, fast food is also popular. As well as the ubiquitous McDonalds, Subway and KFC, I visited an outlet of the American fast food chain, Carls Junior on Malaya Sadovaya street. Mounted on the wall next to the restaurant there is a metal statue of a cat designed to commemorate the cats which helped protect the city from its rodent infestations during the Siege of Leningrad. It is a local superstition that if you make a wish then throw a coin at the cat and it stays on the cat’s metal plinth, your wish will come true. Russians are quite superstitious and there are a few places like this around Petersburg. This visit, I was inordinately proud of myself when, for the first time ever, the money I threw at the cat stayed on the plinth. I can’t tell you my wish though, else it won’t come true!
Another of the most striking aspects of the city is the metro. Mainly constructed during the days of the USSR, many stations are giant marble monuments of design and splendour. Built on marshy ground, they had to dig very deep to reach solid ground when constructing the metro and so the St Petersburg metro system is the deepest in the world. The deepest station, Admiralteyskaya, is 86 metres below surface level and so deep it requires two escalators, one 25m long, the other a whopping 125m long! There are even signs warning you not to sit down on the escalators, and it is a local custom for amorous teenage couples to indulge in public displays of affection the whole journey. To give some context, the longest escalator on the world’s oldest Underground system in London (at Angel station) is a ‘mere’ 60m long.
As a quick aside here, I just want to mention my hotel, since it made quite an impression! As an International Data Researcher I see many hotels and many different beds, but I have to say, this was the first time I’d ever been faced with a round bed with a blue satin counterpane and silk cushions! The whole atmosphere was designed to evoke the rich opulence of pre-revolution Petersburg; there was no denying it was very grand but no student of Russian history could fail to remember what happens to those who have too much luxury. I was actually slightly unnerved; haunted by the ghostly image of the building’s former occupants. It has to be the most characterful hotel I’ve ever stayed in though, and the only hotel “room” I’ve ever had with its own sofa, dining table and sideboard, not to mention a chandelier!
While I could talk about St Petersburg forever, I want to end with an anecdote typical of my experience of living there. As a popular tourist destination, many shop assistants in St Petersburg speak English, albeit reluctantly. However, they also famously try to overcharge those who can’t speak the language. Once, in a souvenir market, watching the stall attendant wrapping the set of Matryoshki (Russian dolls) that I had just bought for 250 roubles (about £5), I noticed a small ticket with “950” marked on the bottom and so (protectively clutching my receipt) I asked what the number meant. The stall attendant turned to me with a big smile: “Oh don’t worry about that! That’s just the price for foreigners!” (nearly £20). Feeling rather like I’d just shown that I could conquer living in Russia like a local (although the attendant HAD known I was English from my accent) I took my purchase back to show my homestay family, who informed me that I’d STILL overpaid and it should actually have been around 125 roubles (£2.50). It’s an amusing story but useful for illustrating how expats sometimes have to tread a fine line between being not quite a local but not quite a tourist either; one price for tourists, one for locals and a third, somewhere in the middle, for an expat. Luckily for a data researcher though, prices in supermarkets, clothes shops and restaurants are the same for everyone!
Glad as I was to go back to St Petersburg, it was soon time to leave again, for my next destination of the small French island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, where I won’t have the benefit of local knowledge, although I imagine it will be considerably warmer than St Petersburg!
Rachel is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.