Arrival in St P, Vol I: by Geoff Morrison

So, I’m now in St Petersburg. After coming home from Spain, I had about ten days to pack everything I owned (once again) and sort out my visa, then off I flew! My dad came out with me for the first week, so for this entry I bring you a guest post! Dad, take it away…

Having visited Sam in Alcalá during October and being impressed with the mildness of the temperatures, the outdoor living (e.g. three generations of families gathering in the main square, Plaza de Cervantes, in the evening), St Petersburg loomed as a very different prospect. This was brought home when I first read that it was the “Venice of the North”, and about the annual festival in March, when the ice on the River Neva breaks. Right, it’s cold, got it!

In the run up to leaving for St. Petersburg, my work colleagues were teasing me as temperatures had swung to an unusual -25 below at night – right, it’s colder than I’ve ever been before! They were right to be a little smug, but even so, I wouldn’t have missed this experience. I’ve seen a few capital cities and this one blows them away in sheer scale of classical grandeur. Peter the Great’s intention (carried on by Catherine the Great) was to create a city to rival Paris and they succeeded, in my opinon. There seems to be a monument, museum or noteworthy church every 50m or less and having come for a week, on day 3 I’m sad that I won’t manage half of what I wanted to.

Our trip started poorly with our taxi transfer from the airport to our B&B arriving an hour late, and we were then hit with a 200R bill each for “registration”, despite having already gone through the complicated (and expensive) process of getting a visa. It’s an experience I’m getting used to here! We checked in, emptied our bags and then went for dinner, ending up shamefully in MacD’s. Don’t blame Sam for that one, I wanted something familiar, and by the time we had added all the outer layers of clothing, scarves, hats, gloves etc, I didn’t want to cope with a foreign restaurant too. We saved that for the second evening (a complimentary cured mackerel with every beer?!), and we were mightily impressed with the restorative powers of beef stew a la St P.!

Free fish! How appetising!

Stout boots are a must and lumps on the pavement to be avoided. There are skid hazards everywhere and although yet to go “base over apex”, I’ve still got 3-4 days to manage and EVERYTHING outside is thoroughly frozen, including my moustache. Indeed we’ve started to laugh each time we go outside as I can feel the hair on my face freezing up within feet of stepping outside, and it tickles!

Ice in the ‘tache

The Metro is a great way of getting around quickly, it’s also warm! The trains and escalators are older than the London system (I remember the Underground from the late ‘80s, and it’s similar in design and materials) but built so far underground it must also have been built to withstand nuclear attack. The people are similar to Londoners in that there is limited chat/banter and also limited eye contact which is good. Local manners are such that I felt obliged to stand and offer my seat to a older Russian lady who was swaying in front of me as I sat. She was wearing a full length fur coat: animal rights campaigners should be aware that real furs appear very popular with all ages, and they might be wise to go somewhere where the prevalence of fur will offend them less. I probably wouldn’t go telling an Inuit the same either, and it’s so cold that I understand it! (Though I wasn’t furred up myself.)

Sam in her furs

Local cuisine has been interesting and although we have much to discover, the local Russian fast food outlets (Теремок, to be precise) are themed on pancakes/blinis and they are fantastic. The borsch was very good in there too. We’ve been buying our food for lunches etc in a local supermarket and they are similar to home, however, I’d be lost without Sam to translate! (Ed. – Haha, my foot. All I do is read Cyrillic and shrug.) The locals generally do not speak much English, not what I expected; there are very few English signs and labels on things.

Tomorrow, we’re going to take a few more steps towards University registration (it’s a very bureaucratic process which also involved a surprise exam for Sam, lol!) and hopefully towards finding somewhere more permanent to live for her. Curiously, flat prices are such that for a short stay (3-4 months) it appears it might be more cost efficient to stay in a cheap hotel. Local estate agents charge a month’s rent for helping find you a flat and the rents aren’t cheap to start with! More on this later from Sam, no doubt.

On a parental note, I thought there would be more support for students in finding places to live whilst studying abroad. Sure, this is about going to different countries and learning how to operate but do our children/students have to be left so exposed? It cost Samantha €1,000 to exit the place the University put her in Spain (see her previous blogs) and one of the reasons why I’m here is to try and prevent something similar happening. It would be good if someone/thing larger and systemic made some changes here. Brief moan over!

Although cold, it has been worth it to see this grand city in the sunshine and snow. This afternoon as we walked to the Language Institute, the wind had taken all the light snowflakes and blown them around and it was like walking in a comet trail of sparkles. You don’t get that in Surrey!

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