There was a low; a point at which I resolved to depart. Not from St. Petersburg, but from the flat. My mood lifted with this decision, there in the darkness of my curtainless room, overlooking the night lights of the city’s indifferent bay. Something in the back of my mind applauded in relief as I finally caught up and noticed the elephant in the room. Why hadn’t I thought of this before?
The musty, discarded factory aspect to the building’s raw concrete corridors, the stinking drains and the veil of dirt that covered every flat surface had been grinding my gears. Never mind the TV, the washing machine and the fridge. Take them out, sell them, burn them, just clean the damn place if you charge people to stay in it. The coin flip for fresh air (or not) that came with every opening of a window had become a gamble that I would frequently lose, to be taxed with yet another hit of sulphur, directly to the lungs, and frankly, in that moment: I was done. In the morning I would phone, complain, leave and find another place to stay until my visa died. We could argue about refunds later.
I’m not the only who had my doubts about the city, but the BUILD blog seems a little harsh, for other reasons:-
“Recent design is minimal and spread out – and when we say recent, we mean within the last 150 years. The city of 5 million inhabitants seems to have been frozen in time since Alexander II. The “Venice of the North”… doesn’t seem to have a personality of its own now that it has stepped out of its communist past. Despite the well conceived urban plan and endless avenues of architectural grandeur, there seems to be an awkward gap between the city’s original intentions and the tedious reality, the emptiness behind the facades, the lack of urban soul”. -Well I liked it; “gap” or not.
Morning was indeed another day, actually sunny and literally showing everything in a different light. I awoke before the alarm and something stayed my hand from the receiver. There was a walking tour booked, a gift in fact, that awaited at the city’s heart. Let’s do that first.
It seems silly with hindsight to have deliberated cautiously over whether to try the Metro or to take a taxi. The nearest Metro was Narvskaya, around 20 minutes walk away, but so what? There were station changes and tickets to buy in Russian, but how hard could that possibly be? Best not find out whilst the clock is ticking I decided, so Uber it was – the standard city taxis (as featured in last week’s article) being decidedly ‘out’ forevermore.
Later however: I would discover that St. Petersburg’s Metro is one of the simplest, efficient, clearly delineated public transportation systems that I have ever used. It’s an absolute breeze and a fraction of the complexity of London’s own Tube that we (in the UK at least) use without a second thought. The difficulty will be for ‘Petersburgers coming to London, not the other way around. There’s clear signage at multiple locations indicating where you are and in what direction you are headed, so don’t worry about getting lost (even if you are lost, worrying won’t help). The wheel is greased even further with the purchase of multi-trip cards that function just like our “Oysters”, but with a screen (on the ticket gate) counting down the number of rides left. Simple.
When buying my own card, my Russian wasn’t good enough to understand the cashier as she tried to explain the extra 55 roubles on top of the advertised card price, but it’s a fee for the storage medium itself: refundable if presented with your (my) passport within 45 days of purchase. Oh, now I get it. In case you are wondering: 55 roubles is (today) around 66 pence, so no great loss either way. In fact I did hang on to mine until I left the country; as a plan ‘B’ in case that final ride didn’t show. Always have a plan ‘B’.
But back to that (Uber) taxi. The sun illuminated the dirty glamour of St. Petersburg’s aging streets beautifully as the driver wove a route through the morning chaos. My intuition said that he was “ok”, and sure enough: no arguments, no upping the fare, just a calm head and polite, token conversation. Outside the sanctity of our mobile box it was a different story, however.
The city traffic is blatantly ridiculous; an irritable scrum of honking madness that sprawls over junctions and juts out awkwardly on corners. Staccato-note protestations abound at the erroneous, the indecisive, the foolish, the impatient. All with equal vehemence and monotony at their respective pitches until the indifferent transgressors depart or are left behind in the struggle. This is just the way it is here, I realised. The same with the drains and the air, and the layer of perpetually settling dirt. No wonder the apartment wasn’t clean; all you have to do is walk away for a day or so and the atmosphere will do its relentless work. It’s normal and I’m the odd one out under this set of rules. At some point during the day, I would decide to remain based at the flat and just deal with it, but first: the tour.
Standing on the steps of Admiralteyskaya Metro, 10:30am rolled around as I wondered if he or she would show; I realised that I didn’t know the person’s name, hadn’t spoken to the guide personally and had no idea what he or she looked like. Not great preparations, then. What now?
[St. Petersburg Industrial/Park photos by Bernard H.Wood]