May 31, 2009. Saint Petersburg
Upon arrival to my native city I am swiftly reminded of an interesting particularity of daily life in Russia which is shocking once one has been away for a while. Everything is annoyingly inconvenient. There are large ways in which things can be inconvenient, for example inaccessibility of single-family homes, or perhaps the lack of proper infrastructure. But the things that hit me were minor, irritating elements of daily life. Below are a few examples and situations.
Traveling takes its toll – The following series of events I have only seen once in my life, even for Russia this seems an over-the-top inconvenience. Upon exiting the parking lot in front of the airport in Saint Petersburg, you have to stick a little ticket you received when entering the lot into a machine. Standard. If you were there for 15 minutes or less, the parking is free, and the barrier opens to allow you to leave the airport. If the time of your stay exceeded 15 minutes you have to pay. However, the toll booth housing the person to whom the money has to be given is physically situated before the machine into which the parking lot ticket is stuck to know if one has to pay. So, if you do have to pay, you have to put your car in reverse, and pull back to the toll booth to pay the man. But, since there are already a million other cars behind you making it impossible to back up that far, the driver has to squeeze out of the car to go to the booth and pay for his parking time. Only then is the barrier opened, and the vehicle can exit. Since this is quite the mind-boggling scenario, below is a rough diagram illustrating the “flow” of traffic out of the airport parking lot:
There’s only one way out…or in – Life in the western world has conditioned me to expect that if I see a set of double doors, both sides of the set will be functioning, one to allow traffic into the building and the other for those exiting. Or, if there is a large stretch of building with several sets of double doors, all of them will be open in order to increase the fluidity of traffic. Not so in Russia. Regardless of the amount of doors, the size of the building or the number of people trying to get through, only one door will ever be open. And not one set of doors, but just one side of one set of double doors. Not only does it create an extreme two-way bottleneck effect for no imaginable reason at all, but the phenomenon of passing through the door is preceded by a brief period of frantic rushing from one set of doors to another only to come to the realization that all of them are indeed locked and that to get to where you want to go, you’ll have to squeeze in with the fifty other people already trying to diffuse from one space to another. The only exception to this is the Metro where all doors are always open. This attempt at a man-made semi permeable membrane is also probably against all fire codes, but luckily for the institutions that practice this sort of traffic control, no one is around to enforce them anyway.
Exact exchange – In Russia, it can be surprisingly difficult to spend money, especially if you have large bills on your hands. Quite simply, most establishments that sell anything from groceries to theatre tickets are somehow not equipped with sufficient small moneys to provide change for large bills. Two or three times in any given day people will ask you to provide exact change, or extra coins so that the change can be given in one single bill. The larger your bill (say for example, a 1000 ruble bill), the harder it is to spend it since you just can’t get change. Case in point: When I visited the Anna Akhmatova museum all I had was a 1000 ruble bill. An audio guide cost 80 rubles. I had to go to four different people all over the museum to try to find someone who could give me change. Finally, someone begrudgingly exchanged my bill for a few smaller ones and I could enjoy the museum. The cashier who did mentioned that she probably would not be able to make change for anyone else for the rest of the day.
The Anti-crisis sale – The final thing I’d like to mention is the prevalence of the economic crisis. Talk of the global financial downturn talk can be heard in regular conversations as well as in the public and corporate arenas. Unquestionably, the world crisis is sharply felt in Russia. People are losing jobs, down-sizing businesses, and seeing their assets steadily lose in value. However, one convenience that has been a result of this crisis is the so-called “anti-crisis” promotion. Businesses have been jumping at the opportunity to advertise special discounts in light of the economic situation in the county: Get twice the sushi for half the price!