Gates-way to Neva-land: Making Changes
By Ethan Gates '12, Staff Writer
“Don’t you have 10 more rubles?”

The supermarket cashier eyes me balefully, her fine, well-plucked eyebrow inching ever higher as I blankly return her gaze. I am momentarily paralyzed by the realization that her question is not in English, as if somehow in the months of preparation and planning I had forgotten that they do, in fact, speak Russian in St. Petersburg. Ripping through the haze that has descended onto my brain after four weeks of winter vacation, I delve into the vast well of my language repertoire and summon the proper response:

“No. Sorry.”

Disapproval. The eyebrow twitches again. The sound the cashier emits is extraordinary. “Sigh of exasperation” doesn’t even begin to cover it; it’s more like a death rattle. With great effort, she counts out four 10-ruble notes instead of one 50-ruble bill. Finally, she hands over my change with a parting look that most definitely does not say, “thank you, come again.”

Russian businesses are funny about making change. Even though most ATMs here will spit out nothing but 1000-ruble notes (approximately $33), good luck finding anyone who’ll be willing to break that for you. I have no idea where native Russians find their seemingly unlimited supply of small-denomination bills and coins, but I wish they would let me in on the secret. Trying to pay for a 20-ruble bus ride with a 500-ruble note will result in the permanent scorn of that particular bus conductor, and trying to pay with a 1000-ruble note will probably get you a swift boot from the vehicle. In Petersburg, the customer is only right so long as they have exact change (and even then, it’s 50-50).

Cash transactions are of course just one of the many details of Russian life to which I must adjust should I wish to survive the semester here. There are the sincerely dour expressions that distinguish every customer service rep, waiter, security guard and ticket attendant in the city (you’ll find no artificial congeniality here.) There’s the fact that the clocks in the metro stations counter-intuitively mark how long it’s been since the last train departed, rather than count down until the next train arrives. There are the bacteria and heavy metals that lurk in the tap water, forcing you to keep well-stocked on the bottled stuff if you want to stay hydrated (or brush your teeth.) There are the cleaning crews scattered throughout the city, chipping two-foot-high piles of snow and ice off of buildings to keep the roofs from collapsing; a noble endeavor, of course, but smart passerbys below should keep an eye out for falling ice blocks of death. A few days ago I witnessed a poor old babushka narrowly miss a meeting with her maker.

Yet, to my mild surprise, St. Petersburg has become a heavily Westernized city. Having walked the streets of New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. before, I’ve found the Petersburg experience so far to be remarkably familiar. There’s even a smattering of Roman lettering amongst the Cyrillic street signs, so I know that if I’m ever craving an American-friendly Chinese restaurant, the “Little Budda” down the street from my bus stop is probably a safe bet. It’s strange; after several months of sifting through orientation materials, I almost expected to touch down on an alien planet. Dire warnings about culture shock have quickly fallen by the wayside (momentarily, anyway) as I find myself struck more by the similarities between Russian and American life than the more minute details of city living.

Sure, I have yet to figure out where exactly I’m supposed to do my laundry in the 18-floor Stalinist monstrosity that is my dorm. Sure, suddenly having to seek out every meal for myself is an adventure, particularly when armed only with a hot plate and an encyclopedic knowledge of the local blini (somewhat similar to a crêpe) stands. And sure, watching my five-minute commute to class at Amherst stretch to an hour-long odyssey here has been somewhat difficult. But as a child of the suburbs, I would have to make a lot of those adjustments in any city, not just a Russian one. All things considered, the fact that my interactions with café waiters occasionally resemble a game of charades causes barely any stress whatsoever.

Of course, I’ve only been in St. Petersburg for a week now. I’m just getting started — I don’t even officially start with classes until next week (or I suppose I should say this week, by the time you read this.) I have four months of possible miscommunication and blundering and embarrassment and homesickness ahead of me. There will be days, I’m sure, when all I want in the world is a Frank’s Red Hot chicken sandwich, and I can’t have it. That’s the catch about studying abroad for a semester: the things you used to rely on, for better or for worse, might not be there in your life anymore. The trick is whether you can change along with your surroundings. After all, when you have an entire cultural hub chock full of museums, palaces and parks to explore, what’s a sandwich really worth?

I just hope the Dostoevsky museum can break my 1000 rubles.

Issue 14, Submitted 2011-02-08 23:50:46