Thursday, July 14, 2005

Internship at the St. Petersburg Times

I started my internship at the St. Petersburg Times this week. Though I feel much less excited and giddy about this opportunity than my first internship at a real newspaper, the Times is decidely more romantic. Its offices are located on the second floor of a proud old building on St. Isaac's square. The tall, west-facing windows in the press room open to a fantastic view of St. Isaac's cathedral, one of the most grand and beautiful in the world. The neighborhood is full of history and stories, with the Mariinsky Palace (a former royal residence and now the City Council building) on the north side of the square. The picturesque canals and bridges all around the area complete the romantic, European feel.
The building, as I said, is old and decidedly in disrepair. But I couldn't help grinning to myself while walking across the creaky, unfinished wooden floorboards. The press room seemed so stereotypical: old newspapers and magazines cover every square inch of shared table space and private desks are loaded with stacks of old articles, sources and stylebooks. The dozen or so reporters no longer tap on typewriters, but it almost feels like they should be. The busy silence in the room is occasionally punctuated by one or another of them shouting a style question to no one in particular or announcing a fresh news item.
Personally, I was put to work on a feature story about the 11 summers Johann Strauss Jr. spent here in Petersburg. Information on that long of a time period, even that long ago, was not too hard to find. Much easier, I'm afraid, than it will be to find information on Herbert Hoover's visits, my next assignment.
But overall I'm very happy with my internship because my editor is nice and because I have really no pressure to finish the articles for any real deadline. It's also nice to be able to write in English, although, I'm warned that I'll probably have to do some interviews for the pieces... and that means talking to Russians. Hmm...

Friday, July 08, 2005

Safe like any other country

Ask most any Russian and he or she will tell you that Russia just has a bad reputation and is as safe as any other developed country. In the same breath they will warn you of the many dangers to be found here. It's safe, they say, but be careful.

The first danger is pickpockets. I've become totally paranoid since coming here. I lost my metro card last week... at least, I think I lost it. I put it in a deep, hidden, outside pocket of my bag, which is always in front of me and in my sight. I really don't see how a pickpocket could have gotten it without my knowledge, or even known it was there. But then, I don't know how I could have lost it either.
I'm also missing my digital camera, but I'm not ready to blame that on the Russians yet. I think I might have left it somewhere in Paris. But that means there will be few pictures from St. Pete's I'm afraid. I bought a really cheap film camera. We'll see how the pictures turn out.

The second danger in Russia is pollution. Tap water is undrinkable unless boiled for 10 minutes to kill the giardia found in the pipes. But air pollution is the most (ob)noxious. Exhaust smells are everywhere and they tell me that what few gasoline controls exist on the books, they are rarely enforced. This makes it hard to eat anything on the street because the smell of petroleum permeates your senses.
Which you're not supposed to do anyway, eat street food that is. Sadly, no one told me this until it was too late. I tried a tasty fried bread filled with meat and spices, called Khichin (хичын). The consequences are too gruesome to detail, but let's just say, don't do that. I spent the entire next day drinking only tea and staying in bed from the nausea.

While I feel very safe walking down the streets alone, even more than in France because men never accost me here as they do there, I've yet to find the "good" side of town. I'm starting to think there isn't one. Everywhere is dirty (not littered, but poorly taken care of) and both men and women drink openly on the street (though according to a new law, at least 50 ft. away from a school).

I'm very cautious with money, but there's nothing much I can do but hide my wallet. The money here, the ruble, has stabilized of late, but you can exchange dollars and euros literally on every street corner because people use to have to keep their money in more stable currencies. Euros are worth more than dollars but both are about a 1 to 30 ratio. Ten rubles for a Russian, however, is the buying power of one dollar for an American. For example, a bottle of water in a supermarket costs about 10 rubles, a good bar of chocolate costs a little over 20, etc. It's hard to break a 1000 ruble bill (which ATMs will only give you if you ask for that amount or higher), even in pharmacies and supermarkets. It would be like trying to cash a $30 bill, so I still haven't figured out why that is, but I can only assume that not many people have 1000 ruble bills.

Unfortunately, the nationwide discount that comes with this exchange rate stops at the supermarket. Anything considered a "luxury" item for normal Russians, such as French clothes or quality electronics, is therefore priced for Western consumers. Additionally, as a hangover from the good old days of the Soviet Union, museums and tourist attractions have held on to the "foreigner price" tradition, making entrance fees to places like the Hermitage museum, fully 3 or 4 times more expensive for foreigners than for native Russians.

So what does this mean for me? Well, with all the frightening stories of thieves knifing bags open and taking out the contents without the owners even noticing, I try not to carry more than 500 rubles ($15) at a time and I never bring my debit or credit cards with me when I'm not going to use them.

So, yeah... I wouldn't be the first to agree with a Russian that here is just as safe as anywhere else.

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