What is it actually like to live on the busiest street in St. Petersburg? For starters, I’m a mere 15 minute walk from the Winter Palace; the Hermitage is the house at the end of the block. The entrance to the apartment in which I live is on a street adjacent to Nevsky Prospect (Невский Проспект), and every day I leave the apartment, I am greeted by a canal, the Kazan Cathedral (Казанский Собор) and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (Спас на Крови).
And what is it like to actually live in a Russian city? Disclaimer: I’ve never lived in an American city (not a real one, anyway), so I don’t really have anything to compare it to, I imagine there are a number of similarities. Everyone drives like a madman, no one wears backpacks except tourists and everything is open late, particularly the bars – many stay open until 6 a.m. on the weekends! There’s not really a word that translates to jaywalking, they simply say “crossing the street.” The metro system is one of the deepest in the world – it takes on average three minutes to get from the street down to the platform – and trains arrive every two to three minutes. It’s more acceptable to stare blatantly at a stranger than it is to smile at passersby. It’s a social crime to whistle; there’s a strongly adhered-to superstition that whistling is like “whistling your money away.”
Iced coffee does not exist unless you go to Starbucks (they think cold drinks are bad for your health), women are not allowed to sit on cold benches or on the ground (it will make them infertile) and slippers, or тапочки, must be worn in the house at all times (to protect yourself from catching a cold from having bare feet touch the cold floor – socks are not enough!). If you go outside in the cooler months with wet hair or without a scarf and hat, it’s everyone’s business and strangers will have no issue scolding you for doing such things. Earlier this week I was sitting in a cafe, and a woman I did not know picked my coat up off the floor and placed it on my lap because the floor is too dirty for clothes. There are at least two doors between the street and the interior of every building and more often than not you have to pay 30 rubles (about $.50) to use public restrooms, even in museums and palaces after you have paid for admission.
It’s a lot to get used to.
Like I said, I’ve never really lived in a city before, much less a city where people don’t speak English, and it’s not easy. There’s a lot to learn, and sometimes, it feels like each day I’m making more mistakes than the last, whether it be asking for the soap in the beautiful box when I meant the red box at the drugstore (the words for beautiful and red are extremely similar) or trying to pay the bus driver immediately upon entering the bus. I wasn’t aware at the time that there is someone who walks around the bus to collect fare nor did I understand what the bus driver was saying to me when he told me to move. Also, I have the apparently blasphemous habit of whistling when I space out. All that having been said, I can tell that my listening comprehension has increased tenfold in just the week that I’ve been here and last time I went to a restaurant with some friends the hostess gave us menus in Russian instead of in English. The successes are small but they happen and they build, and soon enough I’ll be ordering coffee without any pauses and hopping on the right metro without checking the map even once.