10 Surprising Facts about Moscow and Saint Petersburg (part 2)
4. The cold seriousness…followed by a thaw and then warmth
I noticed this first at the hotel restaurant breakfast buffet. I went to the omelet station and smiled at the cook. Got nothing back. Using part English, hand gestures and pointing at ingredients, I managed to order a 6-egg white omelet. The young cook looked at me between irate and disdainful. When I returned for my omelet, I gave him a big smile and said “spasibo”. The corner of his mouth attempted to lift the tiniest bit. It looked like a mix between pain and a smile.
The next day, the same drill but he recognized them and gave me something that was more like a real smile (success!). This happened to me with the lady at the hotel gift shop who almost seemed almost angry at me for asking for a price; people on the street; employees in department stores and servers in restaurants.
One day at breakfast I did some research and found several articles explaining that for centuries life in Russia was such a daily struggle for survival that worry became the prevailing facial expression and smiles were used strictly to express true joy, unlike the easy smiles we throw at each other in the USA, where this expression is a sign of certainty and confidence.
But things may not be the same for the new generation because when I was in Saint Petersburg for a SportAccord convention, on a quick souvenir shopping spree near the hotel, I entered a shop where five teenage girls were in charge. At first, I walked around browsing. Then one of them approached me to ask where I was from. I said Mexico and they all smiled (I'm not going to lie, it startled me). They then proceeded to one by one shyly give suggestions of cool things I could buy for a child, my mom, my sister, etc. They laughed when I reacted at some prices and seemed very pleased when one of their suggestions went into my basket. By the end of an hour, we were buddies and took selfies!
I still think a smile can open doors. It's just that some of those doors are stuck and need a little nudge. Every single time I've been in Russia, I've gone out of my way to smile at people defiantly, almost daring them not to smile back....and they usually not only didn't smile back but looked at me as if I were either insane or stupid.
5. Google maps & the best pedicure in the world
One day, my boss told gave me the afternoon off because they had a private dinner with the IOC leadership. I swear people must have felt a swoosh of wind when I ran out of the hotel, purse in hand, and took to the streets. I didn't have a plan, but a pedicure and a great lunch were just what I needed to recharge my batteries. I opened google maps on the off chance it would work in Russia. I looked at the map and there it was, my hotel clearly marked on the map and the names of all the streets (in Cyrillic alphabet but thank goodness for that year of basic Russian I took because I could at least make out the words, if not the meaning. You’ll understand why later in this post). I proceeded to google "nail salon/ beauty salon/ St. Petersburg" and BOOM! I found one that had 4 stars and was only about 10 blocks away. I got there with no problem at all and proceeded to ask the ladies at the salon if anyone spoke English. One said "a little" and that was all I needed to understand that they could take me at that moment, the price and the service a wanted (full pedi with massage and moisturizing scrub, of course!).
Here is where it got weird and wonderful. The pedicurist takes out an electric drill and inserts a tip with file on it and starts to buff the soles of my feet (it didn't hurt, actually, but I was still alarmed) and files my nails with such precision that somehow she didn't over-file them nor did she hurt even an inch of my skin. How she knew how far she could go without hurting me will forever be a mystery. Then she exchanged the tip for a rubber one and went over my feet again (again no smell of burned skin and no pain). She proceeded to soak, scrub and massage my feet and lower legs. I had never, in my life, had a carpenter's tool used on my feet, but let me tell you that it was THE BEST PEDICURE I'VE HAD IN MY ENTIRE LIFE!
A question for all my readers: Is this a normal Russian procedure for pedicures? And the story continues to be amazing to me: I googled "Greek, Mediterranean restaurant" and BOOM! I found a place that served the most amazing authentic feta outside of Greece, within walking distance of my hotel!
6. Along with Dubai, it is the most expensive city I’ve ever visited
On another trip to Moscow, I was able to get a few hours to myself and my obvious choice was to do a little shopping. The concierge recommended I go to ЦУМ or Tsum department store. It's like a more international version of Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus. Now, I have to make it perfectly clear that the area was very upscale and the only large nearby store was this high-end department store and the hotel gift shops (all 5-star hotel shops are prohibitively expensive). So, my experience is biased.
Most brands and designers sold at Tsum are imported (USA, France, Italy, etc.) so, obviously are more expensive than in the country of origin, but let me give you a specific example. I fell in love with the soft stretchy fabric of a pair of J Brand leggings. In US Dollars they cost about $275. I went online on my phone and the company had them for $150. So, as you can imagine, I did a lot of browsing and very little shopping at Tsum.
Breakfast at the hotel cost 50 dollars for an omelet, tea and a side of fresh tomatoes (pictured below). The last time I saw these prices was Dubai. To me, the prices in Dubai made more sense; it is strictly an oil producing country, everything from food to bottled water to furniture is imported and the income per capita is probably quite high.
The most expensive omelet in the world
I read up on this topic and it turns out that Moscow is around 44% cheaper than Dubai in terms of cost of living. Of course, my experiences were limited to very high-end stores, 4 and 5-star hotels, restaurants and shops in the vicinity of those hotels, so I didn't get the REAL Moscow experience. But still...ouch!
7. Culture streamed live in gigantic screens for everyone
On another trip to Moscow, this time for ISSF meetings, our hosts were gracious enough to invite all the Council Members and delegates to a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet (yep, I've been twice!! And THIS time I wasn't jet-lagged, so I didn't fall asleep). We arrive with plenty of time to spare so we walked leisurely from the buses parked a few blocks away, through a big park where hundreds of people were seated in chairs arranged as if for an outdoor concert, while others sat in the grass. It was hot and there were a lot of popsicle carts around the park. And outside the theater, they had set up a giant screen (like one of those IMAX theaters). The spectators were watching the Barber of Seville. I asked one of our hosts if we were going to watch opera and he said we were going to the ballet and that once the performance started, it would be shown outside on the giant screen.
Culture seems to be more accessible for Muscovites than to people of many of the other countries I've visited and the level of education may also be higher if we go by the number of people who sat there watching opera and waiting for the ballet to start.
Russia has been through so much strife, war and all the suffering that comes with revolutions. And yet, nothing could kill the artistic spirit of the people. That's pretty amazing and beautiful.
8. Dinner on the Moskva River
When I read in our itinerary that the ISSF Council members and delegates were invited to dine on the Moskva river, I got a little nervous. I don’t like being in places where I can’t just get up a leave (this is fodder for a therapist: Control issues? Claustrophobia? Trauma?). But, work is work, and besides, I would be sharing a table with good friends, catching up and exchanging gossip. We were all having a wonderful time, the view was beautiful and the company engaging and fun. An hour went by and all we had been served were drinks. Another hour passed and we finished everything in the bread basket. At around the 2.5-hour mark, the first course was served.
I think hunger kept me too busy to get claustrophobia. It's the little things you learn to appreciate, you know?
9. Two of the best restaurants in the world
One of the coolest things about traveling a lot is the variety of foods you get to try. Unless you're like me, a picky eater and a vegetarian. So eating abroad is always an adventure, especially when you don't speak the language. And this is precisely why I was so surprised to find in Russia two of the best restaurants I've been to on my travels:
Beluga in Saint Petersburg (photos above), where the decor and ambiance were cozy and quaint, the servers were willing to adapt their menu to my needs and left me alone to eat in peace, approaching my table only once in a while to ask if I needed anything. The poster in the ladies' bathroom was a bit of humor that made the place relaxed and cool. The pièce de résistance was the authentic feta cheese on my salad.
Café Pushkin (photos above), near the infamously expensive Tsum department store, is a restaurant that opened in 1999, even though if you ask, almost everyone thinks it’s been there forever. It is believed to have been built in the 1780s and to have had several owners until the ground floor was turned into a pharmacy (today the bar). In those days, the customers of the pharmacy could drink restorative beverages, teas, coffee, or hot chocolate while waiting for their medicines to be prepared.
The mezzanine is a library full of real books, which is where my table was located when I went there the first time. Once you enter it’s like walking through a portal to the past and it is easy to imagine the place once being the home of a nobleman. It is BUSY, so unless you’re there for a quick lunch, dinner reservations are a MUST and the food is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. Even this picky eater found several dishes I could eat, but my absolute favorite was a gorgeous salad with freshly-shaved parmigiano-reggiano cheese and sautéed mushrooms.
I would return to Moscow today if I could have that salad again!
10. Rough and sweet: two sides of the same coin
Many years ago, my sister and I decided to broaden our horizons and we hired a private tutor to teach us Russian. She was a young musician who has emigrated to Mexico for a better life and to improve her chances of getting work in an orchestra.
Why Russian? I've always thought the Russian language is between sexy, rough and sweet. I know, a dichotomy, but wait, I have my reasons. When I was young I was in love with Russian ballet dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alexander Godunov (technically, Baryshnikov is Latvian, but you know what I mean). I love the way Russian sounded when they spoke.
Our tutor was not a professional teacher, she was just a kid trying to make some extra money, so her method was not exactly the most modern approach to learning a foreign language. She started by teaching us the Cyrillic alphabet, making us trace each letter in a notebook as we pronounced its name. Then she brought flash cards with drawings of a cow, a chicken, a house, a mother, a father...you get the idea: she was teaching us Russian as if we were in kindergarten. We learned the alphabet pretty quickly and soon we were writing simple sentences! However, one day, she took out a book from her bag and she said, "Today we are going to read a story. This is a simple story. All children in Russia know it and they can read it." The story was "The Red Hen". That day we decided we needed a break from the classes and we never took them up again. I'd still like to learn Russian - that sexy, rough, sweet language.