Thursday, April 22, 2010

Catching a Car

There's a lot of ways to get around St. Petersburg, but the strangest to me is catching a car. Russians call them "unmarked taxi cabs." Basically, any private car is an "unmarked taxi cab." So, to catch a car, you stand on the side of the road and hold out your arm in a 45 degree angle and see who stops. A car will stop and you ask if he's going your way, negotiate a price, get in, and away you go.

My colleague John had been giving me a hard time about having never caught a car. You have to do it at least once before you go, he said. My hesitancy to do so in the past can be put down to two factors: my clumsiness in using large numbers (and thus my inability to negotiate a price in Russian) and the potential awkwardness of riding in complete stranger's car, not knowing the proper etiquette for the situation.

So, the other day, John, Jared, and I decided to go hang out after school at Petrogradskaya (a different district of the city from the school) and the fastest way was to catch a car. Jared grew up here in St. Pete and is a veteran of catching cars; John has been doing it since the mid-90's. In order for me to get the proper experience, John only held out his arm to try and catch one of the old beat up Ladas. Within about 2 minutes an old beat up Lada Zhiguli stopped and the driver opened up the door and asked where we were heading. John told him and agreed to 300 rubles (about $9). The front passenger seat wasn't bolted down and gave John a bit of a start when he got in; the windshield was on it's last legs after sustaining some pretty extensive cracks; no seat belts in the back seat. In short, a proper Zhiguli, a proper experience for the first time catching a car. The driver occasionally spoke on his cell phone, but never spoke a single word to us. At first I didn't know if it was rude to speak in English with John and Jared, but it became apparent that we were nothing more than cargo, so we went for it. Apparently, it's completely normal to not exchange a single word and completely normal to have your ear talked off.

Catching a car really wasn't that big of a deal. In fact, it's main significance was that it was one more thing to cross of my things to do before I leave Russian at the end of May. The only thing left on my list is to see a ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, but I'm going to take Elizabeth on the 19th to see some Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov pieces.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Metro

Were the Moscow metro bombings a big deal for you? They were here. Last Monday, I woke up and checked the news like I always do and saw that there had been an attack on the metro in Moscow during rush hour. Having been on the Moscow metro during rush hour, I could only imagine the chaos; it's the 2nd busiest metro system in the world with something like 9 million people riding it ever day. I turned on my TV to see what the Russian channels were saying about it; nothing. If you wanted to know what was going on in the Moscow metro you had to have BBC or CNN International. No interruption of programming for the whole day.

I was on the St. Petersburg metro that afternoon and there wasn't any sort of extra police presence or anything like that, but I noticed everyone was a little jumpy. At one stop, I noticed nobody was coming into my metro car. I looked at the doorway and saw why: a bag of trash was lying in the doorway. From my view I could see it was just a few empty beer bottles, but from the outside it's a suspicious bag and better just move on to the next door.

The next day, I noticed there was an increased police presence. Apparently, word had finally filtered down from the top that there needed to be some sort of response to show the people. I read this from a Russian pundit, "It's not enough that the authorities treat us like cattle, but now we must die like cattle too." So, a show of more police officers and detainment of anyone entering the metro who looked like they might be from the Caucasus region happened. Now, I'm normally not the biggest fan of Russian police, but, full credit to them, they looked like they were taking their jobs seriously and wanted keep the public safe. This week, however, the police officers assigned to metro duty are a little less vigilant (they sit on benches and text).

So, while the metro might be a place of fear, being crushed like cattle, and racial profiling, it does have it's moments. The other night I was coming home late so it wasn't too crowded. While walking to my platform I passed an old lady selling flowers. Normally this place smells of stale beer, cigarette smoke, and body odor, but that night it smelled like a florist's shop. To complete the scene, there was an old man serenading passersby with Russian folk songs on his accordion. In her better moments, that is Russia: the scent of flowers and the sound of music.