Travel

Post image for M-A student gets a taste of Russian life during a visit to Saint Petersburg

A week in Saint Petersburg, Russia, is spent by most visitors on a tour or cruise, seeing the numerous historical attractions the city has to offer. From Mikhailovsky Palace to the Hermitage, tourists are ushered from their hotel or ship to each destination, an experience ultimately granting little contact with locals and limited exposure to their way of life.

During my visit to the city in early June, my family and I enjoyed an unusual amount of freedom due to the World Cup, an event that allowed us to bypass the hectic and complicated Russian visa process that drives most to tour operators and travel agents. We structured our visit around the Iran vs. Morocco game, an exhilarating experience, but by no means the most rewarding part of the trip.

After arriving by train from Helsinki, we were driven to the apartment we had rented for the week on Grazhdanskaya Ulitsa, a street close to the Mariinsky Palace. In Saint Petersburg, most apartment buildings share a courtyard and parking area with a communal gate to the street. We waited in the courtyard, observing the crumbling and faded facades while taking in the stench of sewage.

At last the proprietor arrived, a Russian man in his forties by the name of Kirin. He led us up a flight of collapsing stairs to the property – a two-room, Soviet-esque apartment – before leaving us to fend for ourselves. Upon seeing the kitchen/dining area, I was instantly reminded of black and white clips of Soviet families crowding around tiny tables in cramped apartments.

The smell of urine and the cleaning products trying to mask it filled the space while rusting bars obstructed the courtyard view from the bedroom window. The combination of these factors made us uneasy. After multiple calls with the rental service, we were lucky to find a better apartment on the Fontanka riverbank, a beautiful canal feeding into the mighty Neva River.

In contrast to our experience on Grazhdanskaya, we were greeted by a kind, middle-aged Russian lady and her landlord who gave us a thorough overview of the property and ensured our comfort. We were lucky to find such a clean and simple apartment that suited our needs. Here we stayed for the next week, enjoying sweeping views of the Fontanka River and the local coffee shops. The ornate, Baroque architecture lining the Fontanka River felt like a completely different city from Grazhdanskaya’s dilapidated buildings.

While our experience at the first property was undoubtedly disturbing, it afforded us a unique window into the lives of the average Russian and the hardships they face. Being able to witness such distinct neighborhoods within walking distance of each other exemplifies the socio-economic disparity the city faces. Wealth and financial resources are concentrated in certain pockets of the city while other neighborhoods, such as the area surrounding Grazhdanskaya, are left with poorly maintained and cheaply built Soviet apartment blocks.

On our second day in Saint Petersburg, we rode the metro to Udelnaya, about seven miles north of the city center, to visit the famous flea market. After combing through Soviet postcards and watching locals shop for second-hand clothes, we began our walk back to the metro, stumbling upon a small Uzbek restaurant full of locals. Workers and families filled booths as they chowed down on hearty soups and dumplings. The eatery boasted a diverse clientele, as blonde children sat next to women wearing hijabs and laborers with black, chinstrap beards. A friendly, middle-aged Russian man urged me to try the manti, a pillowy dumpling filled with fried meat and onions, along with a glass of kompot, a traditional, Eastern-European fruit drink. The meal was affordable, only 300 rubles (about $5).

A young Uzbek couple ran the cash register, handing out plates of food and drinks. With a plastic spoon, I sliced through the silky outer layer of the manti, carving out a spoonful of filling and dunking it in a chili cream sauce. Each bite was a perfect mixture of noodle and meat, accompanied nicely by the sauce. The soft, dissolving skin made evident that these dumplings were homemade. The manti resembled xiaolongbao, the famous Shanghainese soup dumpling, reflecting the importance of the Silk Road on Central Asian and Russian cuisine. After sampling several other dumplings in Saint Petersburg, the quality of these homemade manti near the flea market was abundantly clear.

Visiting this restaurant granted us the opportunity to witness the ethnic and culinary diversity Russia offers. In big cities, Chechens, Uzbeks, and Tatars share the streets with ethnic Russians, similar to the presence of North Africans in France or Turks in Germany. These groups enrich the social fabric of the country through their food and cultural traditions. A restaurant such as the one we discovered in Udelnaya displays how food can help bridge ethnic divides and shows visitors the multitude of people who call Russia home.

Although I did not see every palace or cathedral during my trip to Saint Petersburg, I was lucky to enjoy such a raw and candid look at life in Russia that few tourists experience.

Menlo Park resident Luca Johnson will be a senior at Menlo-Atherton High School when classes resume

Photos by Luca Johnson (c) 2018

{ Be the first to comment }

Take a virtual tour of Turkey on May 14 at the Menlo Park Library

Thumbnail image for Take a virtual tour of Turkey on May 14 at the Menlo Park Library

Take a virtual tour of Turkey with the photography and music of David Couzens, visiting Ottoman palaces and historic mosques, exploring the villages of Cappadocia, chatting with rural Kurds, and venturing off to isolated, mountainous northeastern Anatolia and toward the Iranian border. Photographer, writer, composer, and musician David Couzens has traveled to more than 35 […]

Click to read more →

Elephant seals strutting their stuff at Piedras Blancas captured by photographer Robb Most

Thumbnail image for Elephant seals strutting their stuff at Piedras Blancas captured by photographer Robb Most

What better way to spend Valentine’s Day than to head to Piedras Blancas to see elephant seals, particularly since that day just happens to be the peak of the mating season, according to the Friends of the Elephant Seals website. If that wasn’t InMenlo contributing photographer Robb Most’s exact thought, it’s close enough. Accompanied by […]

Click to read more →

Italy travel expert Madeline Jhawar speaking at The Applebee Preschool on Nov. 7

Italy travel expert Madeline Jhawar, who we profiled on InMenlo last January, will be speaking at The Applebee Preschool on Tuesday, Nov. 7 from 7:00 to 9:00 pm. The community is welcome; wine will be served. The preschool is located at 107 Clover Lane, although the entrance is right behind the Willows Market off of […]

Click to read more →

This spring Yosemite Valley is a watery wonderland reports Menlo Park residents Timi and Robb Most

Thumbnail image for This spring Yosemite Valley is a watery wonderland reports Menlo Park residents Timi and Robb Most

For the past 40 years, Menlo Park residents Timi and Robb Most have been visiting Yosemite in the spring. But this year, they report, is unlike any other due to the amount of water, not just in the form of raging waterfalls but the flooded valley floor. (And no, the top photo is not upside […]

Click to read more →

Madeline Jhawar helps clients discover “Italy beyond the obvious”

Thumbnail image for Madeline Jhawar helps clients discover “Italy beyond the obvious”

For Canadian-born Madeline Jhawar, it seems all roads lead to Italy. She spent a year there in high school as an AFS student, later lived there for five years, and worked for Butterfield & Robinson as a hiking and biking guide. For awhile she abandoned Italy for the semiconductor industry, doing the job but not loving it. […]

Click to read more →

Menlo Park resident John Donald’s tips on visiting Disneyland – take two

Thumbnail image for Menlo Park resident John Donald’s tips on visiting Disneyland – take two

Editor’s note: John Donald provided his top five tips when visiting Disneyland but said the past year — when he and his family made numerous trips to the park and Disney California Adventure — yielded even more. Here they are, just in time for holiday visits: Assuming you are going multiple days to both Disneyland and […]

Click to read more →

Tips from a Menlo Park family who’ve visited Disneyland dozens of times

Thumbnail image for Tips from a Menlo Park family who’ve visited Disneyland dozens of times

Editor’s note: Being friends with Menlo Park resident John Donald on Facebook felt, at times, like a Goundhog Day experience. Could he and his family really be at Disneyland again? The answer was yes, as John explains below. Use his “insider” tips if you’re planning a visit to the Park for its Halloween or holiday festivities. […]

Click to read more →

Menlo School student and Eastside College Prep teacher travel to refugee camps in Greece

Thumbnail image for Menlo School student and Eastside College Prep teacher travel to refugee camps in Greece

We sat down with Stacy Ishigaki, who teaches at Eastside College Preparatory School, and Menlo School student Lauren Chan. This summer the pair volunteered in Greece for five weeks where they worked with Syrian and other refugees.. InMenlo: So how did this trip come about Lauren? Lauren: Through a school research grant, from my school [and the HAND […]

Click to read more →

High school trip to Israel leads Menlo Park native to ponder the differences between living there and here

Thumbnail image for High school trip to Israel leads Menlo Park native to ponder the differences between living there and here

For Kehillah High School juniors, it’s a tradition to take a three-week class trip to Israel. We recently travelled up and down the entire country, from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to the Syrian and Lebanese borders. Having lived my entire life in Menlo Park, I came back having much to reflect on in the way […]

Click to read more →

Betsy Sergeant Snow travels to Cuba with cameras in hand – and “oh those cars!”

Thumbnail image for Betsy Sergeant Snow travels to Cuba with cameras in hand – and “oh those cars!”

M-A digital arts teacher Betsy Sergeant Snow, currently on sabbatical, thought she’d travel to Cuba to photograph windows. And she did, a bit. But what filled more frames was the country’s famous old cars — the topic of this post — and the wonderful faces of the Cuban people (to come at a later time). Betsy was in […]

Click to read more →