After last week’s confessional, here are a few more embarrassing incidents from the recent trip that I feel I must relate by way of a self-purge. Perhaps you’ll learn something from them? I certainly did.
Men don’t cover their heads in church, women do
How many times have I written this? How many times? Yet, I still managed to get it the wrong way round. I walked quietly and respectfully through the main door of a church near the port, with my woolly head-gear firmly in place. Inevitably, I was given short shrift by the attending church guardian. Don’t expect too many pleases, thank-you’s, and excuse-me’s if you do the same – the devotees get straight to the point, “Here, no hats!” she barked in Russian, fixing me with an icy stare, as I apologised.
Fair enough though. In fact, it’s strangely refreshing to hear some plain speaking, coming as I do from a culture where (professionally) we must almost apologise to buffoons when trying to correct their buffoonery. She was a greying woman, in late middle-age, dressed correctly of course; modestly and with a head-scarf in place. Don’t dress for the beach when you visit a Russian church or cathedral, think; respectful, modest from head-to-toe, and with the minimum amount of flesh on show. Men bare their heads, whilst women are obliged to cover their hair; a simple head scarf being the go-to option.
In addition, long skirts or dresses are ‘considered appropriate’ (if you are a woman, that is). Women may also need a shawl to hide their shoulders – assuming that they are ‘on display’. Trousers (on women) are probably fine in touristy areas, though there could potentially be objections. Expect more stringent adherence to tradition and the minutiae of dress code the further you are from the tourist trail, or the more holy gravitas that the site in question retains. Sometimes, officials may assist by offering basic skirts to female visitors that are dressed inappropriately, though sometimes they may not. Don’t have a wasted journey.
Don’t get into the wrong car
This didn’t actually happen, but it came close. I was in a hurry to get to my Uber taxi and ran out of the apartment to meet the car. I was due to meet a tour guide in the centre and really had to get moving. The driver had arrived early and was calling me plaintively in Russian, not knowing where to pick-up. I could hardly understand anything he was saying, frankly. Unfortunately, I had no portable internet and so could not track his car once outside, either. There are such things as Uber ‘glow’ signs but not all drivers have them (and worryingly; not all are genuine), so my only solution was to scan the area around the apartment block, in the hopes of finding an impatient looking man sitting in a car. I had his number plate, car make and, model, plus a rather poor picture of the man himself. There had to be a better way.
Finding the likely vehicle, minus driver; I assumed that he must have left his car to locate the flat number. I checked the last few memorised digits of the plate. This must be the one; where on Earth was he? Another call came through, more desperate in tone than before. “I have your car”, I managed in Russian. Not entirely appropriate, but hopefully close enough, whilst still not understanding a word that he was saying. Then a man (surely the one in the photo?) walked by, talking on his mobile. We both must have been walking around the street looking for each other whilst conversing by phone!
I hung up and called to him, “Excuse me!” (in Russian) “This is your car? You are taxi? Uber?”. Bemused and somewhat puzzled, the individual ended his call and shook his head. “No, not mine”, he replied, recognising my English accent. I apologised, he wished me a good day and continued on his way. I then checked the car plates again; the sequence that I had remembered was the St. Petersburg area ID! Probably 70% of the cars in the city had the same! I had chosen both the wrong car and the wrong driver, plus my booking had now departed. Good work. Let’s try that one again.
Assuming that there are no Metro stations nearby, it’s worth mentioning that I’d still choose Uber or Yandex again, via an app, and I’d track/verify the driver, car, and number plate to be as safe as possible. There are no absolute guarantees of course, even on homeground. ‘Regular’ taxi’s in Russia just don’t exist, as far as I am concerned, having dealt with the characters who operate even the “official” ones. You can expect the kind of nonsense featured on Virtual Tourist:
“….The meter reading kept advancing in a frightening speed while we were driving. We were still inside the city when it showed 800 Rubles. I mentioned to the driver that the meter was not right, but his response remained: “No English!”. I then mobilized my minimal Russian vocabulary and said very assertively: “Meter ne Khorosho! [Meter not good!] Stop se-chass! [Stop now!] I take avtobus!” Sure enough, the driver looked a bit scared, and miraculously his English came back to him: “OK, don’t worry, I take you to Pulkovo airport for 600 Rubles, OK?!”…”
Don’t get locked out
“Oh bloody hell!” I thought. What code did she use to enter the apartment block? I was about to leave, when it dawned on me: the owner of the flat had left a key on a fob for the flat’s security door, but the building’s entry system had it’s own keypad. I saw her hand move to it, after we had met outside. What the hell had she entered? Why hadn’t she left me the code? Why hadn’t I thought to ask before she’d left? Idiot.
I was standing on the dark stairwell wondering, with a few hours of daylight left, just how I would get back in. I tried her mobile – no response. Think, think, think. Well the locals will know, right? I pressed a nearby door buzzer – no response. Then the outer security door opened, breaking the darkness. Light fell upon me, as if a prisoner in a forgotten cell, and the concerned gaze of a returning resident met my own. No doubt she was wondering who this strange man was; waiting in the shadows to murder her.
I explained my predicament as best I could and managed to ask what the number for the entry door was. I told her the flat number and who owned it, hoping she would know my host. “17, she said (in Russian). But that was my flat number! So the entry code was also the same number? This didn’t make any sense. My impromptu interviewee confirmed, repeated the number and departed. Ok, 17 it is.
I exited the building and the door clunked shut, ominously; the magnetic lock activated with a “tick”. Now the late afternoon light was upon me and twilight would surely follow. I stared at the pad for a second, with its 1970’s-style red LED display, logo badge, and heavy cast assembly. Ok: “1,7”. No click, the door remained fast. Ah, there’s three digits: “0, 1, 7”. Nothing. No, no, no, no, no. I tried my host’s number again: no response. I checked the fob; faintly printed were two sequences of three numbers. I tried the first: No click, nothing. Now the second: again, nothing.
Suddenly, the door swung outwards with a poorly-oiled whine, momentarily revealing a tantalising glimpse of the dark sanctuary within, before securing again as a resident left the building.
“Excuse me, I have a problem – what is the number?” I asked. He just looked at me strangely, smiled, and said something in Russian, whilst gesturing at the lock. “I don’t understand, would you show me?” I replied. He said it again, then once more, forcefully now, before giving up and turning away. Seconds later, a figure appeared from the alley behind me, regarded me strangely (a recurring pattern during my stay, incidentally), simply swiped his key fob against the lock’s embossed ‘logo’, pulled open the door, and entered the block. The fob is the digital key for the outside door, the lock actuator is behind the ‘logo’, and the keypad is just for the intercomm. That bemused resident was probably repeating “SWIPE!” in Russian, or similar. Well, that took a while.