Gourmet Russia

The next day Erin and I spent exploring the city again on foot. We saw Peter and Paul’s Fortress, ate little Russian donuts from a hole-in-the-wall, and made it to a Russian supermarket and marketplace. I’d say that the supermarket and marketplace were the biggest cultural experiences of the day.

In the supermarket there were very few aisles with packaged goods, and rather many more counters for seafood, meats, bakery, and all the other freshly prepared items Russians want to buy. It definitely seems to be an American thing to devote most of the supermarket space to the frozen foods and the things that are packaged and preserved well enough to survive a nuclear winter.

I wanted to try Russian caviar during my visit but I noticed that the caviar was in a locked refrigerator. This did not bode well. I did the math and the smallest jar of caviar cost the equivalent of $70 USD. I’d spend $70 on a steak or something that I’m positive I will like, but I know nothing about caviar and was not willing to spend that much money on fish eggs.

After the Russian supermarket we headed to a Russian marketplace. This marketplace was in the open air and hawkers were pushing their fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, chocolates, and everything else. The bounty was beautiful, but the biggest surprise to me was the butchers. It seems every organ in a cow is sold in Russia. Whether it’s brains, tongues, or intestines you crave, you can buy them in a Russian marketplace. I’m not sure how much they cost or what dishes they’re used for, but my educated guess is that there’s a marketplace for these organs because for a long time Russians didn’t have access to bountiful markets, and so they were probably far more willing to try cow intestine during the Soviet era if that was the only meat available to them. The people buying it in 2013 are probably the people that grew up with it. That’s only a theory though. Maybe all Russians like brains.

It was interesting to see the supermarket and the marketplace and it made me regret not eating more native dishes while I was in Russia. My problem was generally that at most restaurants everything is in Cyrillic, there are no pictures, and no one speaks English. I enjoy trying new foods, but I’m not going to gamble completely and just point to a random line on a menu and hope for the best. Thus, the only authentic Russian meal I’d say I ate in Russia was when Erin and I went to a Russian cafeteria and ate chicken Kiev and Russian salad. Should I ever come back to Russia I will try to do a better job of seeking out the local foods so I can experience the country with all five of my senses.

St Petersburg

Russia was not as scary as I thought. Maybe it’s the professors who do their best to scare us into behaving or maybe it’s what I remember from global history about Soviet Russia, but when I stepped off the ship in St Petersburg I was expecting a more rough-and-tumble town than I encountered.

Our dock was located along the picturesque Neva River, a tree-lined waterway that flows through the heart of the city. We walked along the wide pedestrian walkway, where Petersburgers spend warm summer afternoons fishing, biking, and rollerblading, heading towards the city center. We crossed one of many drawbridges; a passage that caused anxiety amongst some students. The drawbridges are down most of the day, but are raised late at night to allow assorted ships and barges passage through the city. This didn’t bother me much because I think returning to the ship before 1:30 AM while we’re in Russia is a good idea anyway, but a large contingency of students felt the need to check into hostels in the city center so they would be free to drink and be merry late into the night without any hesitation. I would rather sleep in my cozy bed bug-free cabin on the ship, so Erin and I were mindful to remember which streets we wandered down so we could retrace our steps later.

We were wandering in pursuit of a booking agent, planning on taking a train to Moscow. We stopped into a boutique hotel, hoping the concierge desk might be of some assistance. It is there that we received our saving grace: a free map of the city of St. Petersburg, conveniently written in English. Empowered, it didn’t take much longer before we had tickets for an overnight train to Moscow. We were then free to begin checking out scenic St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is notable for its cathedrals and architecture. The city was built with the intention of being more European in style. Many of the beautiful, Italian-designed buildings seem almost out of place. The city is beautiful, but at some points excessive. These amazing cathedrals, the ones we’ve all seen in photographs with the funny-looking roofs, are gorgeously decadent and were built centuries ago, when the tsars ruled and most of the country suffered. Before we arrived in St. Petersburg the resident geography professor gave a condensed history of Russia, broadly speaking about the monarchy, which clung to power far longer than the monarchies in other countries. The beauty of these buildings astounded me, especially considering the societal conditions at the time these gold-domed towers were erected.

We walked around the city, the Church of the Savior on Blood, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and the Winter Palace, stopping for lunch at Subway (which serves beer in Russia, FYI), and then returned to the ship once our feet had suffered enough. We formulated plans for the evening over dinner on the ship and then headed out in search of an ice bar. I’ve never been to such a bar, but apparently everything is made out of ice, and there was supposedly one in St. Petersburg. I’m sad to say that after two hours of searching, the St. Petersburg Ice Bar turned out to be pure myth. The Irish pub that we visited instead, though, did not disappoint.

When we walked into O’Hooligans we were glad to simply be sitting down after 2 hours of questing for a mythical place. O’Hooligans, though, turned out to be a Russian cultural experience in itself. On a Thursday night young Russians were packed into the small pub. The ales were flowing and the patrons and the staff were puffing away. It was a shock to see people smoking in a restaurant but in Russia it’s still totally legal. There is a small and separate (less fun) non-smoking section. I met a young woman named Jessica who spoke English excellently because she works for a marketing firm where she must speak the language for her job every day. I was excited to finally meet a local who I’d be able to speak to in English.

Jessica answered my questions on a range of topics. We discussed national politics (how Putin does not have popular support but will probably remain in power until he dies), local politics (how the police in St Petersburg don’t enforce the speed limits unless they can get a bribe out of it), culture (what Russians like to drink, where they like to go on vacation), and a selection of other topics. Besides our conversation, the other interesting part about the bar was when a friend of mine ordered absinthe. There is a misunderstanding amongst most people that absinthe is illegal in the United States. The ban has been lifted since 2007, but that hasn’t led to any sort of American absinthe craze, so it’s fun to order it in a foreign country. There’s many different ways to prepare absinthe, but the Russian version involves lighting it on fire, extinguishing the flame, then huffing the vapor, reigniting the absinthe, adding sugar and water (distinguishing the flame) and drinking the mixture. It was a gimmicky way to have a drink but nothing is more fun about traveling than trying something you’ve never done anything like before. After a fun time at the bar we headed back to the ship before the dreaded raising of the drawbridges and rested for another day in Russia.