Economy Tips for living in St. PetersburgECONOMY LIVING IN ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA 11/1994
Two years ago living in Russia was cheap. Now The St.Petersburg Pressadvertisements for apartment rentals usually don't even mention prices. If you have toask, you can't afford it. Most rentals are in the $1000 plus a month range for foreigners,and can go as high as $5000. Cheap living in Russia is no more. Well, nearly. I, myself,have been managing to live quite lavishly on $500 a month, all expenses included, (evenwith my highly unusual $100 a month photo bill). This is how:
RENT A FLAT THAT NOBODY WANTS: Preferably from a friend, relative, oracquaintance. Don't bother with agencies, all their rentals are too high. Get a scruffyplace, on the edge of town, that is temporarily being abandoned by it's family, who havegone to the dacha, to America, or is visiting Aunt Luda in the Crimea. Better still, get aRussian roommate, who can help you with the mysteries of the transit system, phone billpayment, etc. The further from the center you go, the cheaper it gets. My flat is 1/2 wayout to Petrodvorets, and so costs only $100 a month for 2 bedrooms.
MONEY: It's cheaper to bring money in American cash ($20's are good) ina moneybelt, than use travelers checks. You then change money at the many convenientlylocated bank windows for as much as you need at the time. Only bring absolutely perfect,unmarked, untorn, post 1990 U.S. currency. All else will be unchangeable. Travelers checkswill cost you a substantial fee each time you try to cash them, and it's hard to findplaces that will cash them. Credit cards are virtually useless except in places tooexpensive for you to shop or eat. Don't put money in fanny packs, most pickpockets arechildren who are the perfect height to rifle them before you can blink. Always pay inrubles, the rates are better.
BRING FILM WITH YOU: Buying film for your whole stay, wholesale, in theU.S. before you go will save you a bundle. Film wholesalers are listed in advertisementsin Popular Photography and offer substantially reduced prices for anything over 10 rolls.Film prices in Russia are high, though processing is cheap. Even Kodak charges only $5 forone hour processing and prints. If you use slide film for your color work, your processingcosts, even at Kodak, will be less. Bring E-6, not Kodachrome. Mounting your own slidessaves money too. You can get E-6 slide processing done, without mounting, in only fourhours at the main Kodak store in town for only $2.35 a roll. Mounts sell for about 35c fora plastic storage box with 36. Using Russian films is also acceptable, if not ideal,providing you don't need anything over 100 ASA, and get it processed in Russia. Russianprocessing takes a week, minimum, and costs $1-1.50, without prints. Russian airport X-raymachines, contrary to outdated reports, are not a problem for your film.
GET WORK WHERE YOU CAN: I periodically get $20-30 extra cash when Iwrite an article for The St. Petersburg Press, you can also sometimes trade your serviceslike photography, or language lessons for other services from your neighbors andacquaintances. I make audio tapes for an English-language teacher friend who needs anative speaker to help his students' pronunciation. He in turn translated my resume andplay into Russian. I then took my play to a theatre who is getting it in trade for gettingme another six months of visa. I got my flat by helping the former occupant get herfiancée visa to the US to get married. And I am regularly invited to attend theatreperformances of my acquaintances by being the show photographer. Usually doing favorsallows you to call in favors. Speaking Russian can even get you real lucrative work. CheckThe Neva News, and The St. Petersburg Press for job listings.
NEVER TAKE TAXIS: You can get anywhere you wish to go on public transit,or if you want to be more comfortable, by taxi-bus (uncrowded buses that you pay 25-30c toride sitting down in a temperature controlled environment). Get a transit map on yourarrival, and a transit pass at the beginning of the month. The most interesting hours ofyour day will be spent on the Metro and bus anyway.
DON'T SHOP IN WESTERNIZED STORES: Nearly everything you truly need canbe Russian made. Russian goods still cost substantially less than Western goods, ditto forfood, services, etc. Packaged Western foods are particularly tempting but ruinouslypriced. Live as much on pasta, eggs, fish, potatoes, bread, and Russian cheese as you canstand. Spending a lot of time shopping to compare prices, and to find good Russianproducts, is also a good idea. There are huge price differentials from product to productand from store to store. For example, Gostiny Dvor, the biggest department store in thecity has prices that average 10-20% cheaper for Russian products than Passage, the moremodern, department store across the street. Gostiny also has more Russian goods than otherstores, which have mainly pushed out local goods to make way for more expensive importedproducts.
EAT FISH WHENEVER POSSIBLE: Because St. Petersburg is on the Baltic, fishis the cheapest thing available. Bizarrely, Calimari (squid), the high priced fancyrestaurant food back home, is one of the cheapest meats you can buy, less than half theprice of chicken. If you're like me and not too crazy about fish, and don't know how tocook it, you can batter-fry it. Mix beer and flour into a coating and throw the dippedfish or squid bits into a frying pan with some oil. Lightly salt.
LEARN TO EAT RUSSIAN FAST FOOD: On the street and in department storesnack bars, you can also get more nutrients for your Rubles. The street price for achocolate & peanut coated ice-milk is 25c, you can get 1/2 a plump rotisserie chickenat Gostiny's Cafe Express for around $1.50, orange juice at D.L.T department store's cafeis 22c, and the average rate for a 0.33 liter fountain Coke at any store is 25c. Theseprices all compare very favorably with rates at Western fast food restaurants, like GrillMaster, Subway Sandwiches, and Baskin Robbins. Next to inflated-price restaurants andexpat bar prices, they are no comparison at all.
HUNT FOR FUNGUS: If a Russian friend offers to take you
mushroom-hunting, do it! It is not only incredible entertainment,but you will return home with food to last days and days. If you take time to string anddry them you may put by a fortune in porcini to last you into the winter. Always makecertain to get your finds checked by your guide, and if you are feeling nervous about wildmushroom eating (Americans are notoriously fungophobic), bring an English language guidelike Arora's All That the Rain Promises and More with you from the States, forreassurance. Mushroom months are usually August-October for the big season, and April-Mayfor "morel" season. If you go out hunting several times you can provide yourselfwith tons of high-protein, high mineral, lo-cal vegetarian food at no cost at all.
WATER FILTERS: When I came here I came equipped with a huge $150 PURwater filter from America that was supposed to be easy to use and last indefinitely. Itwas a pain to use and didn't last out the first month. Fortunately I then found a Russianmade American designed filter that is small, automatic, disposable, easy to use, and costs$2.50. It is called the Aquaphor, and it has been tested and approved by the St.PetersburgHealth Dept. for removal of organic matter (read Giardia), as well as lead, taste, odorand chlorine reduction! It fits onto normal Russian water taps, and filters 1000 liters ofcold municipally treated water. For me that means 5-10 weeks of drinking water. Russiansalso make a wide assortment of other water filters, both simpler and much more heavy-duty.All of them cost less than $10, and all are designed for use on Russian water taps. Youcan find an assortment at any hardware store or home improvement department in departmentstores now. It is therefore silly to bring your own. You simply boil your water for a fewdays till you find one locally.
GET A DOG COAT: If you find your wardrobe isn't warm enough to make itthrough winter, the cheapest alternatives are imported Chinese fur coats of rabbit, catand dog. They cost about $100 for a short coat or jacket, and around $200 for a fulllength, nice one. Your best bet is dog, it looks nicest, and is warmer than rabbit or cat.All these cheap coats will last about two Russian winters before they loose their fur.Guys should get puffy quilted jackets, however, whatever the weather, because fur coatsare considered effeminate, and they will be harassed unless their fur is somethingobviously macho like wolf or shearling.
WINTER BOOTS: The cheapest warm, dry, winter footwear is a set of rubbergaloshes with hand-knit wool socks, or rubber bottomed felt boots. Galoshes sell for about$5, fuzzy-lined felt for $10. You get wool socks by keeping your eyes peeled for thebabushkas selling knitwear near metro stations. Thick hand-knit socks sell for $2-3dollars depending on if they are patterned or not.
WORD PROCESSING: Wait till you get here to buy Russian word processingsoftware for your laptop (if you're bringing one). There is an inexpensive Russian versionof Windows, plus there are numerous fonts, games and programs here to choose from, somecheaper than others. Russian (Cyrillic) keyboards are cheapest at the Electronics/FleaMarket open on weekends, usually under $20. Also available for less are US/Russianphone/FAX converters. You can get these at Gostiny or any computer store for 1/5 of theprice in the US. However, get all your English language programs Stateside. HD Disks arecheaper in the US as well.
DOING HOUSEWORK IN RUSSIA: O.K., so house work is not one of thetranscendent experiences I'd looked forward to having and writing about while in Russia.But, once you get your visa, and live here for a few weeks, dishes do pile up, your jeansneed washing, and the stove wants cleaning. Quickly, you discover that your cornerUniversam (supermarket) does not sell Brillo pads and "Lemon Fresh" Joy dishwashing soap, the flat you rented does not have a coin-op laundromat in the basement, andif you want to buy Western cleaning supplies at someplace like Super Babylon (an expensiveWesternized supermarket) or Passage, you will pay lots for them. Worst of all, if you do,you often find them useless against superior Soviet dirt. So here are some household hintsI've discovered that help me cope on a budget.
SUPER SOAP: Take a bar of the cheapest lye soap you can buy. It is thecheap yellow-beige, tan or brown unwrapped block with big numbers on it that you seeeverywhere for almost nothing. Cut it with a knife into slivers and put it in a pot withabout 2-3 cups of water. Boil on low heat for at least 5 minutes, stirring regularly, tillit resembles thick, but not chunky soup. Do not burn it! Lye soap is serious stuff. Strainwith a colander into a jar or old pump dispenser. Throw out leftover lumps. Cool. Itshould resemble "soft soap" at this point. Thin with more water if necessary. Ifyour container is not airtight, you also will have to add water periodically to thin thefluid back to a soft-soap state. This soap is great dish washing soap, and soap forcleaning floors, counter tops and stove tops. It seems to remove stuff that I can't getoff with a super expensive Ajax spray I bought at Babylon. It will also substitute forlaundry soap, and hand soap if needed, but it is very harsh.
SANITIZING FOOD: What with all the talk of Diphtheria, and Cholera andso forth, you may be tempted to get all imported packaged foods that you can't afford. Forlots of foods this is pointless. Dried fruit and nuts like dates and raisins you can getin their cheapest, dirtiest form, and sanitize. Just boil a kettle full of water, put thefruit in a colander, and pour the boiling water onto the fruit, while you toss it. Thisnot only cleans the fruit but rehydrates it, so that it improves in quality. With nuts youjust do the same thing, then toast lightly on a baking sheet in the oven after they havedried.
PEST CONTROL: I had a rather nasty cockroach problem in my flat untilrecently. Cheap flats have such problems. Russian poisons were hard to find andineffective. Then I got a cat. A young and energetic cat likes sitting around the kitchenhalf the night just waiting for an unwary cockroach, mouse or rat to come out and"play." I no longer have a cockroach problem. Volunteering to be a cat sitter isconsequently an inexpensive method of pest control. You can often volunteer to keep thecat of your landlords while they are away for the cost of cat food, and get one with theflat, for free. If however you get a cat "for keeps" be aware it will cost youabout $200 in shots, pet carrier, and airline fees to bring it home to the USA. If you areallergic to cats bring a small box of borax with you from the US to kill roaches, and buylocal traps for larger pests.
THE RUSSIAN GARBAGE DISPOSAL: Cheap Russian apartments are neverequipped with garbage disposals. There is no point. The designers planned all the plumbingin one corner of the apartment. In other words, you are meant to use the pre-existingsolid waste disposal system, the toilet. It works as long as you don't put anything toolarge in it. Just use logic to figure out what "too large" is for a toilet.
DOING WITHOUT DRANO: If you've clogged a sink drain by pouring greaseand food down it, you can usually unclog it by slowly pouring a kettle full of boilingwater into the drain. If not, check in closets and under the bathtub for a "plumbersfriend" plunger. Most apartments have them. Toilets get clogged from using too muchtoilet paper. Russian toilets aren't built for much paper use and Russian T.P. is thickerthan American paper, so you either have to use less paper or adopt the quaint local customof putting used toilet paper in a waste basket.
GO NATIVE: You will save yourself lots of floor scrubbing if you adoptthe Russian habit of dropping your shoes at the door and going around in slippers.
MEASUREMENTS: If you periodically buy American food mixes like JelloReal Cheesecake or Kraft Noodles`n'Cheese when you find them cheap at kiosks, you maythink you need unobtainable American measuring cups and spoons. However, for yourinformation, a standard Russian teacup is exactly one American cup, a teaspoon is (youguessed it) a teaspoon, and a big flat soup spoon is exactly a tablespoon. Bringing abasic cookbook along helps too, since you can get ingredients for things like brownies,pancakes, and pies in Russia easier and cheaper than finding mixes.
YOU MAY HAVE A WASHING MACHINE WITH YOUR FLAT: If you rented a furnishedRussian flat you should look in the closets for a large ugly plastic box with little dialson top and a hose and electric cord coming out of the back. It is usually a repellantshade of brown. Stored next to this object are usually two wooden boards with plasticcurved ends. This is an old Soviet era washing machine. Using it is much cheaper thansending out your laundry, and easier than washing clothes in the tub. Ask a Russian friendto give you lessons in using it. Essentially you put the machine on the boards over thebathtub, and fill the drum with water and a tiny amount of clothes. It's only marginallyeffective, but better than hand washing all your clothes for the duration of your stay.