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I’m moderately employed for the next few weeks. I’m teaching English to an intermediate-level group twice a week. I had my first lesson with them last night, and it’s a really nice group. They’re not shy about talking and have good senses of humor, and there’s a good gender and age distribution. (One group I taught in the winter consisted of several lovely young women around the age of 20 and a lecherous 40-something guy, which resulted in a rather awkward dynamic.)
Not much else to report. If you’re in the US, visit this website:
How Not To Find A Starbucks. Though there are days here when I wouldn’t mind one. :-) The closest St. Petersburg equivalent is Idealnaya Chashka, but they don’t have anything Tall, Grande, or Venti.
Oh, and can I just make another plug for Blogchik? Michele has a knack for finding fabulous and wacky Russia-related links, and I always want to post them here, but then my blog would just be a mirror of hers and that would be lame. So just go there regularly, OK?
With the vast amount of free time I have on my hands these days, and with the weather being extremely pleasant, I’ve been intentionally having some public transportation adventures. I take the metro to a far-out station, and take trams or buses back, or vice-versa. It’s cheap entertainment and I’m getting to know all corners of the city. Not that the city’s all that scenic once you get out of downtown, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
Today’s adventure was to take the metro one stop north of “my” stop, Chernishevskaya, to Ploschad Lenina, then take tram number 20 to Sosnovka Park, which I walked through to get to Ozerki, with a bit of grocery shopping at O’Key before getting back on the metro. (For those of you unfamiliar with St. Petersburg, I tried just now to find you a link to a good map, but failed. Granted, I could have tried harder.)
I saw a really crazy sci-fi building and took a picture of it with my mobile phone. I’ll try to post it here later.
Just a quick post, as I have a lesson to teach in two hours and I have to prepare for it. Yes, a lesson! Earning money! What a novel concept.
I spent the weekend in a little village in the middle of nowhere drinking milk fresh from the cow, eating shashlik, getting beaten with birch leaves in a real old-school Russian banya, getting a million mosquito bites and searching fruitlessly for hedgehogs. It was great.
I was reminded that some of the things that bug me about Russia really have more to do with St. Petersburg being a big city than with Russia per se. It’s like what my college advisor, a native New Yorker, said about New York: “You have everything you want, and everything you don’t want.” It’s kinda true of any metropolis: you’ve got your nice cafes, your mobile phone access, your armed robbers and your stinky drunks on the metro.
As reported in The Moscow Times, a recent study ranked Moscow 4th and St. Petersburg 15th as the world’s most expensive cities for expats. According to the study, a cup of coffee in Moscow will cost you more than five bucks, and a CD more than $23.
Hello? What? Where are these people shopping? Granted, Moscow is more cosmopolitan and pricey than St. Petersburg, but here I can’t find a CD that costs more than $10. Well, I suppose I COULD, but it would take finding a record shop that actually sells licenced CDs.
Let me make it clear that I believe in intellectual property rights. I have lots of friends who are musicians and I believe that artists deserve to make money from their work. Nonetheless, I don’t feel all that guilty when I buy a CD or DVD for three dollars here. It’s not as though I would have bought the licenced ones if they were available. My CD collection grew pretty stale over the last few years when I was living in Washington because I just couldn’t justify dropping $15-$20 on a piece of plastic on which I was likely only to like two or three songs. When I did buy a CD, it was usually at a concert, where I at least felt like my money was going straight to the artist instead of the bloodsuckers in between.
As for films, I think I don’t even need all of my fingers to count the number of videos and DVDs I purchased in my entire life in the US. It’s the rare movie I really want to see more than once or twice, and for $20 you can go see it twice in the theater, or once with popcorn and soda, in either case more fun than watching it at home. But here in Russia I buy several DVDs a month. It’s actually cheaper than going to the movies, and besides, most of the movies in the cinema are American ones dubbed into Russian. I’m all for seeing a Russian movie in Russian even if I miss lots of dialogue, but I’m not going to watch a crappy Hollywood flick made worse by a cheesy Russian voice-over. But DVDs, even pirated ones, often have the option of watching in the original language.
And so, I’ve really been catching up on my movie-watching. Last night I watched “Donnie Darko”. I was surprised to find it in an ordinary store, since it wasn’t a big blockbuster or anything, but then you can often find even very obscure and artsy foreign films in the most pedestrian of places here. So, if you’ve seen “Donnie Darko”, can you tell me, please, what all the fuss was about? Why was this an instant cult classic? It was a fine little movie and the acting and character development were great — except for Drew Barrymore, who despite being terribly adorable, can’t act her way out of a paper bag (god I love that phrase) — but why was it the Midnight Movie at Visions (a now-defunct art-house cinema in Washington) for like, a year? Huh?
Um, so where did this post start? Oh yes, cost of living in Russia. How do real Russian people live on an typical salary of 5000 rubles a month (about $200) in two of the most expensive cities in the world? Not that it’s easy, but things aren’t nearly so expensive if you’re not in the foreigner bubble. As quoted at the end of the Moscow Times article:
Scott Antel, a partner at Ernst & Young and a Moscow resident since 1993, said that the study’s findings might be true for those “living in a cocoon environment” but are less so for foreigners who “go native,” taking public transportation and shopping at markets.
Word. Go native. I’ll admit to being half in the cocoon, but still I can’t believe that any foreigner could complain about Russia being expensive.
I got this fun CD in Helsinki on the recommendation of Mari and Jyrki. It’s a kind of trip-hoppy kids’ album sung, er, rapped by two actual little kids. Supposedly it’s about the environment, but since I unfortunately know nothing of these Finno-Ugric languages, it could be about anything. It sounds super cool though. Check out the website, on which you can even hear the music, which I kinda wish I had known before I dropped 22 euros on a CD (did I mention that Finland is expensive? Darn those intellectual property rights, which they don’t have in Russia. I got Moby’s new double album for 150 rubles, about 5 bucks. But that’s another story.)
Helsinki was lovely. It was my fourth visit there and still I did a bunch of new things: Finnish Design Museum, Arabia Porcelain Factory Museum, Seurasaari Island, and the zoo. But mostly I just enjoyed a brief foray into western-Europeanness. Drip coffee and big cookies in cafes. People being polite. No one pushing and shoving. Shopkeepers who don’t scare you off with their glares.
And! I got to see Mari and Jyrki and Tapio the Superbaby. So nice.
I’ve decided that I’m no longer going to put up with Russians sneering at Scandinavia and saying that it’s boring. Dear Kostia bears the brunt of my complaining, but on the whole I am very diplomatic and try to say nice things when Russians ask me my impressions of Russia. After all, I am here by choice. But this dissing on Scandinavia, which has managed to make a near-utopia out of the same kind of climate and resources Russia has made a disaster of, well, I’m not going to stand for it any more. So there. You’ve been warned, Russia.
So my cold is pretty much gone, but I’m left with this really annoying cough. Kostia got me some cough syrup which tastes like oregano, but the only thing that really seems to keep the cough at bay is beer, nursed slowly. Is it bad to use beer as medicine?
Ah, Helsinki. I suddenly felt so relaxed and happy the moment I stepped off the train. Everything’s so clean and nice, and one can let one’s guard down a bit and not have to fear looking like a foreigner and getting pickpocketed or held at knifepoint. The main problem is the temptation to spend money. Everything looks so nice, and everything is so expensive. It costs a euro to pee at the train station.
I’m off to Helsinki tomorrow for a break from St. Petersburg and all its little frustrations. I will return refreshed and un-cynical. :-)
I have a head cold. Again. Well, at least this time it was two months between colds. After being sick three times in a four week span in March/April, I have been faithfully taking my vitamins, washing my hands and using hand sanitizer all the time. But I forgot my vitamins a couple of days last week. And so I suffer. When did I become such a sickly person?
OK, it was partly my fault, as I deviated from my one-errand-a-day policy and tried to do too much today. You see, in Russia, everything is more complicated and takes more time than it needs to. So, one errand a day is reasonable. It irritates you, but then you go for a coffee or something and forget about it.
I tried to do five errands today.
1. Payday. In the US, there are lots of different paydays — you might get paid every Friday, you might get paid biweekly, you might get paid semi-monthly, you might get paid monthly. Here, it seems like there’s only the monthly option, and the usual way of receiving your pay for the month is to go to your employer on the 10th of the following month and get an envelope of cash. The people I know who work for western companies actually get direct deposit into a bank account (oooh), but it seems like most people get the envelope.
So. I go to the kindergarten, you know, the one that screwed me out of two weeks of work and vacation pay? Yeah, that one. I have to hunt all over the building for the woman who hands out the pay, who tells me that so-and-so is at the bank right now and it will be two hours. Fortunately, Elena, the very nice woman who handles the English curriculum and is kind of the go-between for all the foreign teachers, calls so-and-so who’s at the bank and finds out she’ll be back in 20 minutes. So I go and hang out with my co-teachers Heidi and Lutsia for a little while. Lena brings me my envelope, and all is good.
2. The Hermitage. I take the No. 7 bus to the Hermitage, where I am to hand in Aunt Kelly’s application and payment for the Friends of the Hermitage Club. I meant to do this earlier in the week, and it’s too bad I didn’t. So I go there, ask a few people where the office is, knock on the door, no answer. There’s a little lounge area with a “Friends of the Hermitage” sign above it, so I ask the women selling postcards next to this lounge where I can find someone who has something to do with this club. They go and knock on the same door I just knocked on. “They’re probably at lunch”, they say. It’s 2:30 p.m. “Have a seat in that chair.” So I sit.
After awhile, the postcard women tell me that there is someone in the office. So I go in there, explain my intentions, and the very nice woman tells me that the people who do the “Friends of the Hermitage” memberships are on a business trip in Finland and did I have an appointment with them? No, I didn’t have an appointment, but I had this e-mail that they sent Aunt Kelly saying that we could stop by any time Tuesday-Friday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. So I say I’ll call for an appointment next week.
3. Train Tickets. I go to the Central Ticket Office to get train tickets to go to Helsinki next week. They have moved the international ticket office. I find it. The line is long. Not only long, but slow-moving. One of the two windows was being monopolized by a travel agent or tour guide who was buying tickets for 32 people, and in addition to the ticket agent working on the issue, there were three other employees standing around her, offering her advice and further complications. Then there was the other line, which I got on. Look. I’m a freaking foreigner who speaks Russian badly, but after my first attempt at buying train tickets here, I learned that what you have to do is study the schedule carefully, know which train you want, and have an alternate in mind if the train is sold out. Well, everyone in front of me had some kind of freaking complication that required them to spend 20 minutes getting their tickets. Forty minutes later, it’s my turn. It takes me less than five minutes to get my tickets.
4. Payday again. I go to the language school where I teach my other lessons. I say I’m there to pick up my pay. The woman in the office says that they don’t hand out pay after 4:00. I look at the clock. It’s 4:10. The man who hands out the pay is standing right there. I look at him, I look at the woman, they look at me. I roll my eyes and storm out. Then I storm back. “You know, last month I waited an hour an a half to get my pay”, I say. They grumble back and forth. Julia, the one employee at the school who speaks English and is the go-between for all the foreign teachers, overhears this and goes into the man’s office and says something on my behalf. I am summoned. I am given my pay.
5. Mobile phone. Aunt Kelly gave me my mobile phone for Christmas and she and her assistant had set up my subscription for me. My current subscription does not enable me to make calls outside of the Russian Federation. I want to be able to send texts while I’m in Helsinki next week. I go to my mobile provider’s office to change my subscription type, a process which I imagine requires them making a change in their computer and me forking over some money.
No. It requires my aunt to come in with her passport, a credit card, and something about our Russian residency registration forms. I stare at the woman incredulously, then I walk out of the office.
I go home and pour myself a drink. No wonder Russians drink and smoke so much.
So these are my tentative summer travel plans, and if you, dear reader, are a person I know in real life, then I hope our paths will cross this summer. And all you folks who said you were going to come to St. Petersburg, well, get your asses over here quick, it’s the nicest time to visit!
June 13-15: Helsinki
July 18-25: Germany
July 29-Aug 1: Washington, DC
Aug 2-8: Upstate NY
Aug 9-13: Washington, DC