Our first full day in St. Petersburg was a crash course in Russian culture. Peter and I were on our own and we did what we do best, we ate and drank.
Our first stop was for lunch to a steakhouse where we were the only diners in the restaurant – this would become the theme of the day. Fearful of not being able to communicate, we made the restaurant choice based on a popular online review site which rhyms with Hipadvisor although this name would suggest that the site is hip which, let’s just be honest, it is the very opposite of hip.
After lunch we walked around the city in the declining weather and took some photos of the varying architecture.
The temperature was incredibly chilly for June. St. Petersburg is a big city with big US size blocks and it’s hard to get anywhere remotely quickly because everything is spread out. I often complain about how small everything is in England but its not only downside living in a compact area.
When our legs were tired, we stopped at a cafe to use their toilets and wifi. We were ready to be indoors and during my online search, I found a bar in the area called the Barack Obama Bar. We left the cafe in search of this bar but failed and ended up in a bar called Big Liver Place where their motto is, “We make your liver bigger!”
We spent a somewhat considerable amount of time at Big Liver Place. The bartender was friendly and was pleased when we told him that he makes better drinks than most of the bartenders we have come across in London.
We drank a few delicious cocktails at Big Liver Place, including a White Russian which was prepared with the smallest grater I’ve ever seen. After a couple of drinks, Peter informed me that we were going to the Nutcracker ballet the following day. Perhaps he thought I would be more welcoming of the notion of attending a Christmas themed ballet in June if I were a bit tipsy.
My reaction was one of horror. We left Big Liver Place for dinner around 9pm and as we learned again, 9pm was way too early to eat dinner.
The restaurant we selected for dinner was one of Sergei’s recommendations. Sergei failed to inform us that the staff only spoke Russian which made for an interesting and smoky experience. Smoking is allowed pretty much everywhere in Russia and smokers are catered to – they get the most plush seating with the best views out the windows. Our server was smoking when she took our order. I felt I was experiencing the reverse version of Sergei’s “time travel”.
At about 10:30pm, Al, Sergei, Max, Irina, and Marina arrived at the restaurant. They ordered a ton of food and 500 grams (half liter) of vodka. Vodka shots were taken at a very rapid pace by Al, Sergei, and Peter. Max drank cognac. The half liter of vodka was empty 30 minutes later and another 300 grams of vodka was ordered. The woman sat idly by and watched the men drink. Not even in my most active drinking years would I have been able to keep up with the rate of vodka consumption that night.
Russian drinking rules
- Vodka is ordered in grams: 50g is a shot, 100g is a double shot, and 500g is a half liter. When 500g is ordered, an unopened half liter bottle will be delivered to the table. When ordered in an amount other than the above, a carafe filled with vodka will appear – just like a carafe of wine. Clear wine.
- Ideally, vodka should be served chilled, however, it is not a deal breaker if it is served at room temperature. The half liter bottle of vodka, Russian Standard, delivered to our table was frosty from being in the freezer.
- Once a bottle of vodka is opened, it must be emptied. This is primarily because Russian vodka bottles have a peel-off foil “lid” and cannot be resealed, however, it is also tradition to deplete the bottle. Vodka is still a thriving business in Russia and bottles are often taken home as souvenirs by foreign tourists. The tourists are often bewildered when they peel-off the lid of the bottle and realize that it cannot be resealed.
- The person who opens the bottle is the person responsible for pouring the shots until the bottle is empty, if not for the entire evening. Rules vary.
- Vodka drinking is a multiple step process: pour shots, hoist glasses, give toast, sniff traditional black (rye) bread, exhale vigorously, consume vodka, and consume “standard” chaser (defined below).
- It is forbidden to chase the first shot.
- Subsequent shots are chased by fruit juice or a bite of salty food. Acceptable chasers include: fruit juice, pickles, dried fish, dill, and parsley. Pineapple and apple juice are the preferred juices as they are the best at covering up the taste of vodka (per Sergei). If there are no “standard” chasers available, the next best thing is to smell a woman’s hair or your armpit. That’s not a joke.
- Each shot glass must physically clank every other glass after the toast is given.
- When consuming alcohol, never consume a lower percentage alcohol after having consumed an alcohol with a higher percentage. Doing so will cause a hangover and hangovers are frowned upon. For example, if you start with beer, you can switch to wine and then to vodka but if you start with vodka you cannot switch to wine or beer as they have a lower alcohol percentage than vodka. This is opposite to the American advice of “Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear. Beer before liquor and you’ve never been sicker.”
- Always eat when drinking. No excuses.
- If you don’t have any vodka, drink sparkling water the following day to cure a hangover.
We finished eating and drinking at about midnight but it didn’t feel that late because it was still light outside. We walked to one of the canals and boarded a boat which powered us through the canals on a silent tour of the city (with alcohol, of course).
St. Petersburg is a very beautiful city. The city is extremely clean (streets are cleaned every night) and the buildings are well-kept. I felt safe and did not see any areas of the city that were rundown or felt a bit sketchy. Though we felt safe, we were forbidden to walk by ourselves at night. Max or Sergei always escorted us back to our hotel. They insisted that it was not safe for us to walk alone. I did not question them on this.
One time Sergei misunderstood a conversation between he and Peter as though Peter was going to stay at the hotel and I was going to meet the group at the coffee shop down the street. As soon as Sergei understood the plan, he told Peter that I was not to leave the hotel alone and that he would meet me in the lobby of the hotel and we would walk to the coffee shop together. Both Max and Sergei were very protective of all the women in the group. I do not understand why this was. Was the city truly unsafe or was it a cultural thing?
Our boat tour came to a close around 2am when the sun had just set. We popped into a cafe for a hot drink where I had a humorous conversation with Max.
Max: “Cahmie, what would you like to drink”?
Me: “Water, please”.
Max: “Coffee, tea or voodkah”?
Did Max not understand me? I see water listed on the menu. He speaks perfect English. What is the issue?
Max: “Coffee, tea or voodkah”?
Alright. Max surely understood me the second time. He just doesn’t like the idea of me drinking water.
Max: “Good. Now you understand Russian democracy”.
Overall, our first full day was pretty low-key. The men got intoxicated but not too intoxicated and the women stayed sober.
Click here for the next post in the ongoing Russia saga.