Random Observations on Russia

This post should probably be “random thoughts on St Petersburg and Moscow”, since Russia is an awfully big place, but you know, “Russia” just sounds much grander.

So, because I’m feeling very lazy today, I’m going to do this as a numbered list, thus saving me the trouble of coming up with smooth transitions between paragraphs, which can be oh, so taxing. Apologies, and all that.

Things I loved about Russia:

1) The People. And I’m really saying “people” to make my wife happy, but let’s face it, 90% of everyone I met was a female, so i guess I should say “The Women”…and really, by “Women” I mean “Girls” since all of them were below the age of 25…so yeah, that should probably read “The Girls”…but I’m married, so I’ll say “The People”, but you know what I really mean. “The People” were super friendly, super helpful, and most of all, really fun. Yes, even in Moscow, for the most part, which was recently named “The Least Friendly City in the World” in some big poll. I do have to admit the people in St Petersburg are generally more friendly than those in Moscow…but I think that’s more of the same thing you find in New York vs Los Angeles comparisons. People in New York put on their “I’m a hard ass New Yorker” mask just like people in Moscow, whereas Los Angeles people are more like “Dude, let’s go to the beach and eat tacos”. It’s just a different kind of city.

Also, while I’m on “The People” I should mention that, as my father reminded me EVERY FIVE MINUTES FOR FOUR STRAIGHT DAYS in Moscow, “The People” in St Petersburg were generally much better looking than “The People” in Moscow. So…I guess I’m saying go to St Petersburg, not Moscow.

2) The food. The food ranged from horrifying to awesome, as it does most everywhere. We had crappy Italian and good Italian, crappy Mexican and “almost right and pretty good” Mexican, etc. But when we stuck to Russian or “near Russian”, like Ukrainian, it was just awesome. Borscht – you’ve gotta try it. Dumplings – who doesn’t like dumplings? Vodka with dinner – who doesn’t like getting drunk at dinner? You get the idea. Stick to the local specialties, and you can’t go wrong…probably. Sadly, I didn’t get to try anything exotic I couldn’t find in LA like bear or Siberian Tiger (I kid!), so unfortunately I can’t comment upon that. But I did have donkey in Beijing a couple of months ago, if it makes you feel better, and it actually was delicious. I should probably write that trip up as well, but I’m getting off track.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that Moscow, with twice the population and being the capital, seems to be stronger for foreign foods than St Petersburg. Of course the flip side is that everything in Moscow seems to cost 50% more than St Petersburg, so that’s something of a moderating consideration.

3) The Bars – Every place should have bars that close at 6am. I mean, if you’ve made it to 2 or 3 am, what’s the point of getting home at 4? You’re still not going to make it to work on time. Much better to go to work straight from the bar, no doubt. That’s making a statement.

4) Russia Itself. For an American, Russia is foreign; really foreign. There are a thousand little ways it’s completely different from the US. By contrast, we were in Scotland before going to Russia, which is kind of like being in an older version of Boston with stronger accents. I mean, Scotland was great, but really not all that foreign, obviously because the US is a mish-mash of transported culture and architecture, much of it from the UK. But Russia is way different, and that’s what I like about traveling. It’s pretty accurate to say that within 12 hours of landing in Russia, I pretty much had forgotten I’d even been in Scotland.

Things I didn’t love about Russia:

1) Russians like to sweat…or Russian shopkeepers would rather see their customers sweat than buy and/or run the air conditioner. I can’t tell you how many places we were in St Petersburg where it was 85*F (30*C) inside, and 70% humidity, and everyone in the place was just sitting there…happily I guess…and sweating. Well, everyone but me, I was f’ing miserable in those places. But they always had something that held me there, like working wifi (see point 2 for more on wifi). Maybe it’s just a California thing; everything here is air-conditioned, so I’m not used to the whole “sit and sweat and be happy” thing. Yeah, I’m probably just spoiled.

2) Wifi – it’s a lot like El Dorado. You know El Dorado? It’s the mythical city of gold that the Spanish Conquistadors traipsed all over hell and back trying to find? Wifi in Russia is like that. Seemingly every place – almost every coffee shop, every bar, claims to have wifi, but 70% of the time it’s “mysteriously broken”. So what happens is you finally find a coffee shop, on your 5th attempt, that has rockin’ wifi, and it’s just sweltering hot and humid in the place – it’s the god-damned Amazon Jungle – and you’ve got a choice to make: do you call your kids on Skype while slowly melting, or get the hell out of there and make your kids cry? As you can see, Russia is a land of tough decisions.

Anyway, the place you want in St Petersburg for wifi is CafeMAX, but do yourself a favor and wear your bathing suit if you go there, cause you’re gonna get wet. Malaria pills would probably be a good idea too.

3) Inflation – It’s much worse in Moscow than St Petersburg, but things are damn expensive in Russia now. CPI is out of control, and after 10 years of greater than 10% inflation, Russian’s “Purchasing Power Parity” is terrible. I would guesstimate a person in Russia making $55k can buy what a person in America making $30k can buy, at most, which is what “PPP” indicates…and the average person in Russia makes $20k a year (and remember that’s in weak dollars). The average wage is higher in the bigger cities, but so is the cost. So, yeah…Russia needs a better Central Banker.

Other Observations On Things I Neither Love Nor Hate, But Are Simply Interesting:

1) Air Guitar – It’s wildly popular in Russia, though it looks just as bad as it does in the States. I can not explain this phenomenon. More popular among guys, but girls do it too. Mystifying.

2) Mullets – They’re popular. Really popular. I’m not talking righteous Dog The Bounty Hunter kind of mullets, cause that would be just awesome. No, these are the very conservative barely there mullets where you look at someone and say “something’s wrong here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it”, and only someone with a trained eye great sensitivity to The Force can identify The Disturbance.

Dog the Bounty Hunter - The Very Essence of the Epic American Mullet

Typical Russian Mullet - Mulletus Commonus

3) 24 Hour shops – Need a 24 hour fabric shop? Russia’s your place. A bewildering array of shops are 24 hours in Russia for no discernible reason that I can imagine. There’s no way these places are making enough money at 3am to be open, but open they are. Now maybe this has some super interesting impetus like in the Soviet past people had to stand in lines for bread, so in the Modern Russia you’re damn well gonna be able to buy a Big Mac at 4am, but all I know for sure is if you’re standing at a bar drinking a liter of vodka in the very early morning, and you suddenly have a driving desire to buy socks, you want to be (and probably already are) in Russia.

What kind of store is it? Doesn't matter, it's 24 hours! Let's go buy something!

4) High Heels – Can a Russian woman be too tall? The answer is apparently a resounding “NO”. While in the US few women over 5’10” (1.8m tall) would wear 4″ heels, as they usually prefer to not tower over men, in Russia all bets are off. In fact it seems that the taller a woman is, the higher her heels will be. If a Russian woman is 6’2″ (1.88m), she needs 6″ Heels, for sure! And the nice thing is, they go with anything. Shorts? No problem. Bikini? Sure. At the beach? A mild inconvenience. You’ve gotta admire that kind of determination.

Tracking Russian women at the beach is easy - just follow their distinctive stiletto prints...

5) Spaghetti Wiring – At some point, perhaps in the late eighties, a lot of wiring must have happened in a hurry in Russia, because there’s a chaos of small-gauge wires running betwen major buildings, across canals, just willy-nilly all over the place. I’m assuming this is telephone wiring, probably brought on but the rapid expansion of the telephone system that one would think took place after the fall of the Soviet Union, but that’s mere speculation on my part. It seems to be more prevalent in St Petersburg, but at some point, the next oligarch is going to be the guy who gets the contract to rewire the place.

Wiring Chaos in St Petersburg

Someone is gonna get rich fixing this...

6) Cigarette Price Controls: Did you know that anywhere in Russia, cigarettes cost the same? The poshest bar in Moscow, where it might be $30 for a well drink, Russian cigarettes are a bit over $1, Marlboroughs are $2, just as they are everywhere else. Not that I smoke cigarettes…

I could go on and on, and probably will in later posts, but in summation; Russia is awesome. Awesomely expensive, amazingly fun, and absolutely foreign. I may not know when, but I do know that I’ll be going back. It’s just too good not to.

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