Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why we're still here...

In honor of bid season, and shamelessly stealing the idea of an FS Blogger located in Brussels, here's my Top 10 Best and Worst of St Petersburg. Like this other blogger, I had a bit of trouble finding the "bads" as we are deliberately here for 2 consecutive tours. 4 years. A Foreign Service lifetime.

The good
1.  Ballet
The Mariinsky Ballet Company (previously the Kirov) is well known, but did you know Piter also boasts the Mikhailovsky Ballet? I have seen some Mikhailovsky performances that trump Mariinsky ones, and Mikhailovsky theatre is easily accessible by public transit unlike the Mariinsky. And the Alexandresky theatre hosts Eifman when he's in town. I have probably now seen more ballet in the last 3 years than I had in my lifetime before now!

2. Weather (hear me out!)
Here's my cred: I lived in Singapore with only a ceiling fan. I summered in Delhi when monsoon didn't come to cool things down. The words "only 40 today" have passed my lips. I can do hot.

But here's the thing. You can only take off so much, and A/C can only work so hard. With a hooded down coat and my fleece-lined Timberland boots, with my kids in Lands End snowsuits and Kamik boots, we can use every piece of equipment in the playground for an hour at -30F. I've done it two winters (last winter wasn't that cold). We have no malaria. Mosquito season is short. You can use sandbox toys in the snow. Almost nothing HAS to keep us inside, whereas heat can be dangerous.

3. Hockey
I hate spectator sports. I think a baseball game is a good place to drink beer outside. However ... the European style of hockey isn't as fight-y as the North American kind, and is more based in speed and finesse. It's actually pretty to watch. And the most expensive tickets outside the boxes is approx $25.00 No, I didn't mess up the decimal. Terry went to almost every home game this year and will again next year. Alex loves to go with her daddy (weekend games start around 5pm)

4. Chocolate, Honey, Vodka
Chocolate: I'm a dark chocolate girl, but always hate how American/European dark chocolates have that chalky texture. Somehow the Russians have found a way to keep the bitterness of the flavor but make the texture creamy. I have no idea what I am going to do when we leave here. When we go home on R and R or HL we bring chocolate with us. I am pretty sure this is a major culprit in my gaining weight AFTER losing the baby weight.

Honey: Ironically, our previous post was Malta, whose honey is famed and in all the souvenir stores. Never liked it much. Russians are very serious about their honey. At the fairs and markets you can find honey stalls each boasting a dozen different varieties and each one is different from anything any of the other vendors sell. Our favorite is the white - we still haven't figured out which vegetation is comes from - but it is the one specifically labelled полезно для здоровья детей (good for children's health).

Vodka: I never understood how Russians could just drink vodka without anything else to cut the taste or potency. Now I understand. A good vodka is smooth and has either no taste, or a pleasant taste. It doesn't feel like fire going down. I have a favorite brand I can happily sip.

5. Petersburgians aren't nice, but they are kind. Exactly like in NYC.
Example: I lost my diplomatic ID card during the 10 day New Year holiday. Turns out the woman who found it called the Consulate, after the holiday we connected arranged to meet up so she could return it to me. When my bad Russian made me hesitate at one point while she was telling me how to get to the nearest meto stop to her, she offered to come to my neighborhood.

6. 24-hour energy
In Malta, stores closed around 2pm or maybe 4pm Saturday and didn't reopen until Monday. This is when the weekly grocery list and shopping trip really became ingrained in my family. In Piter the stores and many restaurants open 24 hours and, especially in the White Nights season, the population is too. Just the other night I was going home at 11pm with the sun glinting off Spilled Blood (and me wishing for my camera!) I saw a babushka walking her couldn't-be-more-than-2-year-old grandson in his stroller. Wide awake, of course. Terry's hockey practices are at 9:45pm because that's when they get the ice - and I imagine when the dads can get away.

7. Beauty
This was originally entitled "Museums and Monuments" but then I realized it wasn't broad enough. Museums and palaces of course abound; a brief list includes the Hermitage; Russian Museum (which I prefer to the Hermitage); the palaces of Peterhof, Catherine's Palace, Gatchina, Pavlovsk; Peter and Paul Fortress that happens to house a cathedral and several museums plus a sandy beach right in the middle of the city; the Summer Garden that recently reopened; the Singer Building on Nevsky; the Bronze Horseman; the view from St Isaac's Catherdral or, if you feel a bit lazy, from Mansarda restaurant. Everywhere you look in Petersburg you can find something beautiful, whether it's streetlights glittering off ice in the winter, an old palace that was someone famous' home for a few years, or a park in full summertime bloom and greenery.

8. Housing
We don't have too much to compare to, but the apartments here are surprisingly large and centrally located for such a big city. Yes it is all apartments but they are BIG and on the longest stretches of winter darkness the place never felt too small to contain 2 energetic preschoolers and it is certainly larger than the place we planned to raise children in when we lived in Philly.

9. Transportation
If we wait 3 minutes for a train in rush hour we start complaining - off hours we sometimes have to wait just over 4 minutes. Horrible, awful traffic means it took 45 minutes to go clear across the city. How on EARTH will we survive a DC tour next?

10. Cuisine
We've discovered Central Asian cuisine and Georgian food is a new favorite (although we haven't been to the recommended Uzbek place yet). Restaurants are at worst OK and at best exquisite. 

The bad
1. Apartment living
The lack of a garden is wearing on Terry 3 years into it. The inability to open my door and order the kids outside while I do the "they can't help me with this" part of dinner is also frustrating.

2. Ice (can be deadly!)
Russian attics aren't insulated. Heating is central and most people keep their homes at a comfortable temperature by opening their windows. What does this mean? All the snow on roofs melts and becomes ice. Icicles as large as people can hang off the eaves and threaten those passing by. 2 of the 3 years we've lived here there have been a dozen or more icicle deaths each year - this year was particularly dry.

3. Difficult language
If I gave Spanish the attention I have given Russian, I'd be a solid 3/3 by now. Instead I am optimistically calling myself 1+/1+ and continually frustrated by my own inability to find the word I want, or if finding it being perplexed as to which case or verb form to use. The only good news is I like a challenge and the triumph I feel from small progress is exhilarating.

4. Expense
Nanny post this is most certainly not. We are also improperly COLA'd so we aren't even being made whole. Things that cost $30 in the USA (crockpot, anyone?) are over $100 here. At least it keeps the shopping down.

5. Groceries
To keep a healthy diversity of produce you are either forking over $10 for a small bunch of asparagus (when it is in stock, which is about once a month) or doing a lot of preserving in the 2 summer months that things are in season. The reason I do my zucchini-bread-a-thon in the summer (so far about 120 muffins in the freezer!) is that there is no zucchini about 6 months a year - or anything other than carrots and cabbage - so it gets some different nutrients into my kids. There are some frozen veggies that, even though technically available locally, we still bought from the commissary when we still had commissary access because they tasted like someone bought them at the store, put them in the freezer, then put on a fancy plastic bag to make us think they are professionally processed.

6. Dirt
This isn't just about dirty streets or polluted air, it's ground and water pollution and the fact that we really don't know what harmful chemicals are in our food. Nothing's organically grown here and the water has heavy metals. We buy the imported carrots even though the local ones are the cheapest and, doing the "sustainable thing", we'd normally go for local over organic if given a choice.

7. Darkness
A lot of people have trouble with this one. I used to say that if you worked a 9-5 job in New England you went to work in the dark and came home in the dark so does it matter whether you missed 7h or 3h of light in between? As a partly SAHM, I feel the darkness more strongly. I'm not comfortable having the kids in the park in the morning when it's pitch black. It's also partly Medvedev's fault for cancelling standard time last year - we stayed on daylight savings so the sun came up at 11am. DAWN was 11am, not even full daylight.

8. Driving
OK this one isn't actually a problem for me but I put it in for fairness. Petersburgians drive like Philadelphians. Many Americans aren't happy about driving in Philly. My only issues with Philly involved the supernarrow streets in South Philly, and I haven't encountered those here. Driving the wrong way down a one-way, illegal u-turns, parking on the sidewalk? Par for the course.

9. Burocracy
Every month I have to pay Alex's detsky sad bill at the local bank. It means standing in a sort of line - Russians don't exactly line up, they call out "kto paslaydnie" (who's last?) and then focus on that person. It has to be in cash and I hand the teller the bill, the cash then wait for ... what? I have no idea. Terry lets the internet bills pile up for a few months before paying them because it's the same dealio. Alex is at a private detsky sad because a couple of native Russian speakers have told me the language issue isn't even half the problem with getting a child registered for a public school, it's the red tape.

10. Sushi
I love sushi. Terry stupidly lived in Japan and won't eat it anywhere else now. Every restaurant here serves sushi, whether the restaurant bills itself as, and the rest of the menu is comprised of, Italian, Georgian, French bistro, pub, you get the picture. And all of it is awful. What a tease!

No comments: