As I get my bearings here in St. Petersburg, there is little to say about Building Without Borders, or solar sail spacecraft just yet. Staying dry and on time while navigating unfamiliar sidewalk slush, the world's longest Metro escalators, and unmarked taxis so far occupies most of my time. Maybe it's the jet lag, or learning verbs of motion, but the basic concept of "to go" seems up for grabs. What does it mean? How? Why? To where? I wonder what of our readers' transit habits would seem completely odd to people from elsewhere?For the last four mornings I have learned variations of the commute from my host family's home in the Mariinsky neighborhood, to my language school near Ligovsky Prospekt stop. At around 9:15 I hop on the Marshrutka, a little yellow passenger van. People flag down the drivers at bus stops or other points along the route, and if there is room, they stop. If there aren't enough seats, people stand, and then everyone pays 17 rubles (about 50 cents) while disembarking at the Sennaya Ploschad (or Haymarket Square) station. Having just found out that I'm full of lead, I try not to watch the black plumes of smoke as we idle, as leaded gasoline is still used here. Other thoughts to avoid: continual warnings about drunk drivers and nonstop accidents.
At the underground Metro entrance, signs admonish you to hold the swinging doors so as not to completely take out the person behind you. They don't seem to have made a major impact. After inserting the 12 ruble token, passengers line up on the right side of the escalator for a three minute ride. If in a hurry, you can run all the way down. Sometimes I do this, but don't like to since I feel like I'm advertising my tourist status to the entire row of passengers, and, in addition to the drunken driving warning, I've been repeatedly admonished about pickpockets. The subway cars themselves are quiet, serious places. No smiling, rare chatting. Of course, coming from San Francisco, it's odd to see ears underground without Ipods.
During the rush hour, as everyone scrambles to get to work by 10:00 (that's right!), the route to escalator ascension can bring back memories of Jr. High mosh pits. I just steel myself and fuse with the crowd until it spits me out onto the escalator. A couple of people climb up: Russians in much better shape than I am.
On the street, the main goal is not to slip on the ice. Gutters dump run-off directly onto the sidewalk, creating merging skating rinks or, as it warms up, a series of mini glacial lakes to traverse like Big Foot. Ice falling from buildings and onto pedestrians is a major hazard. One cute safety innovation I noticed was roping off a potentially dangerous region with string buttressed against the ground by a tree branch. The Russian women somehow manage the sidewalks in some of the highest heels I've ever seen. Apparently, keeping one's shoes clean is a status marker; I will remain a plebe, I think.
In addition to mass transit options, there are taxis for after the Metro closes at midnight, or you're too far away from it. The official metered taxis are expensive, so most locals and students seem to prefer the unofficials. Last night after dinner my friend helped flag a random man down in what basically amounted to hitchhiking. This system allows you to ask the Russian everyperson to take you where you want to go, if it's convenient, for a negotiated price. Of course, this goes against every personal safety reflex drilled into me during a childhood next to one of Ted Bundy's favored highways. I thought about jumping out and leaving the rubles a few times, but stayed the course, and eventually found my building in this stranger's car. I hope my mother isn't reading this. ::