Escalators, Kopecks, Cheese: 15 unconventional scares about Russia

St Petersburg in the winter, brrrr. (Artwork credit: Valery Jacobi who can be found on Wikimedia Commons)

You’ve heard of the dark Russian winters, creepy cemeteries, the difficulties of speaking Russian and all the political tensions

By Fann Sim & Catherine Barney

Those things are to be expected, you can even prepare for them. But what you can’t prepare for are the everyday hurdles like babushkas and bridges. We’ve been in St Petersburg for about 9 months now and here are 15 things we didn’t expect to scare us, to scare us (Catherine Barney & Fann Sim).

1. Talking with a babushka

Don’t be fooled into thinking that all elderly folks are full of charm. Babushkas are tough old grannies that will tell you know how pathetic your Russian is while simultaneously insulting your incompetence in understanding the Russian bureaucratic system.

Unfortunately, you can’t avoid them, and smiling doesn’t always help.

2. Eating Russian cheese

Russia’s never really had a cheese industry. Ever since EU sanctions, getting proper cheese in Russia has been a real pickle. You never know if you’re going to bite into cheese made from… palm oil. Yes, you heard that right.

Imagine our faces when we stand in front of the cheese racks at Russian supermarkets:

3. Getting and spending kopecks

So get this straight. 1 rouble (€0.015)  = 100 kopecks. I have a bag of these 1-, 5- and 10-kopeck coins that are pretty much worthless. Seriously, what can you buy with it? Even a chocolate bar costs 60 roubles!

A bag full of coins might be useful as a weapon though.

4. Trying to pay with a 5000-rouble bill

On the same thread, many of us can attest to muttering a prayer in front of the ATM to not get a 5,000-rouble note. Use it to pay for the bus bilet (ticket) and you get a dirty look and a free ride.

You’re rich but you’re poor at the same time.

5. Being stuck somewhere because the bridges are open

Are the bridges open? And is that a good or a bad thing? Even the terminology of the St Petersburg bridges is frightening to use. To set it straight, the bridges being open means you are stuck in the centre or stuck on one of the islands until the bridges close again and traffic may pass.

It can feel pretty dramatic sometimes.

6. Sitting down when a babushka boards a public transport

It happened to us and it will happen to you. Just as you score a seat on the bus or metro and plug in your headphones, a babushka comes into view.

If you don’t have cultural courtesy to give up your seat willingly, they will teach you.

7. Telling your Russian friend you’re not on VK

“Are you on VK?” The question always leaves me overwhelmed with guilt and feeling like a loser––as if you don’t want to listen to free music, watch free movies and have a social life in Russia.

8. Talking to a marshrutka driver

When it’s -30C (-22F) in St Petersburg, your patience to wait for the bus wanes. You hop onto one of the many passing marshrutkas that have designated routes throughout the city.

Marshrutka drivers only stop when you tell them to or when they pick up other passengers. So you have to speak up. The memory of the babushka you encountered earlier that day reminding you of how terrible your Russian remains fresh.

Maybe you manage a  “zdes’ pozhaluysta” (here please) and some hand gestures.

9. Trying to explain Vasilievsky Island’s lines

Why is it so confusing to explain Vasilievsky’s numbered streets? Maybe because it depends on what map you’re looking at. Sometimes it’s just the 3-Liniya, other cases it’s the 2-3-Liniya, and then sometimes it just skips a liniya or 6-Liniya turns into 7-Liniya.

Where am I?!

10. Biting into a pryaniki pastry

Russia has a tradition of being a tea culture. With tea, comes tea pastries such as the traditional pryaniki. BEWARE. That lovely bowl of pastries you’re dying to dig into could be left over from the Soviet Union––like eating a rock.

11. Not being able to open the windows in winter

Almost all heating in Russia is state-owned. Furthermore, many buildings don’t come with any sort of dials or temperature settings. So it’s usually blazing hot indoors, so much so that even in the dead of winter you have to open the windows to let the heat out. And when you’re in a place where you can’t open windows, be prepared to feel suffocated.

What a huge waste of energy!

12. Using salad to heal wounds

Maybe it’s an old wives’ tale, but it scares me to think that any Russian considered rubbing a piece of lettuce or cabbage on your skin to heal a wound.

Lettuce show you what you should do with vegetables.

13. Finding Russian cream cheese in your sushi

Russians love their sushi. The Sushi-ya is ubiquitous and are like pizzerias in New York. Some even think Russians do sushi better than the Japanese who actually created the dish.

The Russian interpretation of sushi often contains cream cheese, a somewhat nasty but ingenious addition.

People tend to feel conflicted about this one.

14. Not walking fast enough on metro escalators

St Petersburg’s escalators are known to be deep. And by deep, we mean two and a half minute-deep.

Some people take the fast lane, and they speed down the moving stairs like it’s no mean feat. I feel like a child holding up all the adults in their adult business when I hobble down the stairs.

I’m trying my best, damn it!

15. Drinking smelly beer

You’ve already been warned about drinking tap water in St Petersburg, but what about other drinks?

For some reason still unknown to us foreigners, the beer and cider in Russia smells like someone distilled it with used toilet water.

We still drink it. I mean, come on, it’s only 77 roubles.

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