St. Petersburg can be similar to the United States. People are people, after all, wherever you go. That being said, there are key differences that a tourist might find strange, weird, or even silly.
In the United States, a cashier would look at you strangely for trying to pay for $8 worth of food with a $100 bill. In Russia, this sentiment is amplified. My first visit to a supermarket here, called Okay (Окей), was when I experienced this. I attempted to buy about 600 rubles worth of groceries (about 10 dollars) with a 1000-ruble bill (about 20 dollars). My Russian, not yet adapted to local talk, failed me. She asked me a number of times for exact change. After the seventh or eighth time, I understood what she was asking, and told her I didn’t have any. After a very sassy eye-roll and scoff, she gave me my change. At the time, I was frustrated and felt a little tinge of culture shock. Now, I look back at it and laugh. If you come to St. Petersburg, just remember this: it is not your civil duty to have exact change at all time. Just move on, and enjoy your time here because the rest of the city is beautiful.
While on the subject of money and cashiers, it is common for customers to place money on a pad or designated place instead of just giving it to the cashier. While not all places have this “policy,” the places where money is exchanged hand to hand tend to be more touristy or international places. A typical exchange goes like this: you place your groceries down, and then your money onto the ledge or pad next to the register. The cashier then takes the money from the ledge, and puts your change on the pad. You then bag your own groceries (prepare to buy a bag if you didn’t bring your own) and go about your day.
Wow, what a musical city. It is not uncommon to wander into a square and find someone singing or playing music. The first time I used the metro here, I was leaving from the Academechiskaya station and a woman brought out her accordion and played a very beautiful, traditional Russian song. Outside the metro, near the Academ Park mall, you can always find a woman singing old Slavonic hymns or a group of people setting up a jam session. Whether in the metro, on the street, in shopping malls, or at the train station, it is very common to find someone playing music for change.
Oh, how I love the metro. The metro from my dorm is about a 10-minute walk, and is the easiest way to get anywhere else in the city. To get on the metro, it costs 31 rubles (at the time I’m writing this, about 50 cents) and this allows you any number of stops, line transfers, and rides. Once you leave, you have to pay another 31 rubles to get back into the metro. Once you pay, you wait on what I can only describe as the longest escalators I have ever been on. From top to bottom, it is a three-minute ride. Next to each platform are a number of guides, telling you exactly which stations are on that line. It is an extremely user-friendly system, even if you have never been on a metro before (like me). Getting from one side of the city to another is about 45 minutes (from the end of one line to the other) but it is only about 30 minutes to the main “prospect” in Saint Petersburg, Nevsky Prospect. The other options are taxis, trolleys, trams, busses, marshrutkas (the weird love child of a taxi and a bus), and walking. Using the metro is the easiest option. I usually bring my phone and headphones, and either listen to music, read, or watch a movie. Now, what makes the metro a little strange are a number of things. I mentioned the music on the metro, which is very common. Another common occurrence are people selling various products on the metro: wallets, books, paintings, etc. Lastly, be prepared for the lines. Lines in Russia (especially in the metro) are not how they are in the United States. In the United States, people can be pushy and rude but lines are generally a well-understood concept. Whoever is in front of you goes before you. In Russia, if you don’t push your way forward, you get left behind. People are in a hurry; move forward, or they will. Just remember that in Russia, it’s very important to walk with a purpose.
There’s not a lot to this one, but if you’re ever texting or messaging a Russian person this might apply to you. ) is the exact same here as 🙂 is in the United States. Don’t be confused if you get a text with ))))) on it. That’s just the Russian smile.
Tipping is not as important in Russia as it is in the United States. Tips are still included in the bill for large parties, but single check tips are only about 10% of the bill. This is seen as a very adequate amount. If you are like me, and you enjoy tipping people, you can still do the American 20%. I figure that many of these people do not interact with Americans very often, so it’s a good way to leave a decent impression.
Something I have had some trouble with are trays at fast food places or food courts. Whenever you finish your food here, it’s customary to leave it on the table. I usually forget, just because it’s so normal to throw your trash away and put the tray up in the United States. However, I choose to throw my food away on my own out of principle. Just don’t be surprised if a worker comes up to you, asking if you’re done so as to take your tray.
Of course, these aren’t all of the differences. And truthfully, a sassy cashier and hectic lines are pretty insignificant problems on the list of grievances. No matter where you go, with different customs and cultures, it’s important to remember a few things:
- You will mess up.
- It’s okay.
- Everyone messes up, even locals.
- It’s okay.
- You’ll be embarrassed.
- It’s okay.
- Life will move forward, like it is known to do.
- It’s all okay.
The unfortunate truth is that a number of news stations spend a lot of time and energy convincing us that the world is an angry, scary place. Living here, I have met and conversed with Russians, Germans, Arabs, French, Finnish, Swedish, Indonesian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, the list goes on and on. I have learned so much culture and so many different ideas, but I can tell you that people are people no matter where you are.
If there’s any advice I could give, it’s to shed those layers of intercultural anxiety and stress. Laugh at yourself, and smile. You’re abroad to experience life and love and culture, not pain and sadness. If you allow yourself, you’ll come out of this experience a more complete person.