Wednesday, February 3, 2010

First Impressions and Observations

The Culture

Yes, vodka is cheaper than water here. Beer is also relatively cheap at about 30 roubles or $1 per can, which is usually half a liter. You cannot buy hard liquor between the hours of 11:00pm and 7:00am, probably for some very good reasons, but it is still not uncommon to see youngsters and middle-aged men alike drinking beers on the walk home from work.

The water here is a metallic, brownish-green, toxic mixture of chemicals, pollution, residue, and bacteria. It is totally undrinkable lest you want to be sitting on the toilet for days on end. In that case, no antibiotics will be able to cure you of temporary confinement, nor will the already shaky toilets respond kindly. They are quite finicky and choose when they want to flush completely.

The water can be drunk after it has been boiled for at lest five minutes consecutively, although it still contains a distinct taste of rust and mildew. I don't know how many years of our lives we are going to lose collectively from living in Russia for these few months, but we are thirsty and do not want to keep paying for bottled water. Living in Chicago, I love the taste of tap water, even if it possibly is as dirty and unhealthy as in Peter. It is even better when Mischa gets me one of the sippies with just a hint of Gatorade and some ice in it!

The directors scared us to death during our orientation about gypsies congregating outside metro stations and other known tourist-heavy areas in the city. We were told that some groups ambush foreigners and in a matter of seconds, take everything that you own. Although we did not discuss this until several days later, the other students and I (or comrades, I should say) independently pictured the cloud of smoke that develops when Tom and Jerry (cat and mouse) are fighting with each other for a few seconds until the cloud dissolves, and one or both of them are scratched and barren.

We asked the students who were here last semester if they had even come in contact with such "gypsies," most frequently the slang word used to collectively refer to Roma people. They reassured us that nothing even remotely resembled what our directors described, and that they had never seen or heard of anything like that happening in St. Petersburg.

Metro etiquette.
Apparently, chivalry is not dead in Russia…in some cases. While on the metro this afternoon, a young man got up from his seat in order to let an older Russian woman sit down. However, there were two older Russian women that had just entered the train car, and they were being polite with one another of who should sit down in that seat. After hearing for a few seconds, I got up from my seat to stand with the my suitemates. It seemed like I had almost passed as a Russian!

A few stops later, I heard a babushka giving another young man a tongue lashing who was sitting down while an older, fur-clad woman was holding on to the steel railing. He promptly, but begrudgingly got up, and gave his seat to the other old woman. They did not say anything to each other, and everyone acted as if the episode had never occurred before. It was just as we had learned in Nachalo, our first Russian book at Georgetown!

Several people on the trip have commented on how we either see tall, slender, trendy women with long hair, tons of makeup, and carefully-chosen outfits…or short, stout, old fashioned women with short hair, wrinkles for makeup, and bundles of fur. There seem to be no women between the ages of thirty-five and sixty except one of our professors who is the only thin middle-aged (?) woman that we have seen thus far. For some reason, it seems that Russian women age all at once, and do not age well at all. While young, the women are smoking and drinking heavily, often showing off their super shiny black, high-heeled boots with similar black patent leather big handbags that they lounge on their forearms while strutting down the avenues.

Young and old women alike also possess the remarkable talent of not slipping in the snow. Ever. They must have snow picks on the bottom of their shoes or something like that since us Americans look like idiots flailing our arms while trying to keep up with the face-paced streets.

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