Customer Service, Anyone? Anyone?
08.08.2007 - 09.08.2007 25 °C
From Cape Town, we flew through London (ok, well, arrived and then spent more than 2 hours in lines for a security screening and re-screening . . .) to St Petersburg. Our actual (non-line-standing) time in London Heathrow was too short to force down all the Brit treats I wanted to, and there wasn’t a decent English Brekkie on offer (I’ve been getting kind of used to them in the former African colonies!). But we got to St Petersburg on time, and checked into the Nevsky Inn, selected on the basis of its excellent location near to the Hermitage (and not its proximity to McDonald’s, no matter what Lloyd tells you!). The Nevsky’s manager, Elena, had been tremendously helpful with our Russian invitations (for the visas) and with the Trans Siberian tickets, so it was great to meet her in person.
When we first pulled up to the Nevsky Inn, we were a little concerned to be dropped off outside a dilapidated building that looked like it should be a candidate for destruction. But, happily, after a climb up three damp and dingy flights of stairs which incited fears of armed bandits at every corner, we found the Nevsky Inn to be clean and bright, and most importantly secure behind a heavy door that the Bank of England would be proud of. The only disappointment was that the advertised wireless internet was not available: indeed, it hadn’t worked “since last year”. However, we were allowed to camp out in the Inn’s tiny office (which also doubled as the laundry) and use the office computer to check email.
The weather co-operated for our short visit, and we enjoyed a full day and a half hitting most of the key tourist sites. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (where Alexander II was fatally wounded in 1881) was an unexpected highlight, with more than 7,000 square meters of stunning mosaic, and onion domes worthy (if not more impressive) of St Basil’s in Moscow. The Hermitage was a staggering disappointment, however. We were in line for over an hour to view the largest art collection in the world. As non-Russians, we were – inevitably – charged more to enter, and yet there was practically no information provided to us in the English language. No guide. No map. No nothing. Now, we probably should have done our research and been better prepared for our visit, or maybe hired a private guide, but instead we wandered around for almost an hour on a fruitless search for something that would help us find our bearings.
Paint by numbers? Monet? Hmmmmm . . . . .
So, we randomly strolled around, finding nothing particularly compelling (though to be honest, I was so frustrated that it may have coloured my impression somewhat). Overall, it felt as if quantity was more important than quality of presentation, or than educating museum attendees, and I was happy to escape. Not before we took our ‘Russian’ style photograph, however. We noticed that Russians adopt one of two poses for photographs: (i) highly provocative (usually reserved for scantily clad pre-teens, teens and twenty-somethings) and (ii) serious statuesque. Not qualifying for the first genre (Lloyd’s thong was lost in the laundry . . . thank goodness. Oh AND we’re too old!), we attempted the latter in the Hermitage’s grand stairway, as the photos below show.
St Petersburg is known as the ‘Venice of the North’, and on this front the city did not disappoint. We enjoyed an evening boat ride (it was still light as we departed at 10PM!) through many of the city’s waterways, revealing some less well known buildings not on the traditional tourist route. Unfortunately, a two-hour long search for the only English-speaking boat ride in town proved unsuccessful, so Lloyd was left trying to interpret a Russian guide who spoke about 500 words a minute at high volume and didn’t pause for breath during the entire one hour tour. By the end of the tour, her lips were so blue we thought she’d need CPR, but it just turned out to be the colour of her 80’s style lipstick. Matched her pink hair and Elton John sunglasses quite nicely.
And actually, we were surprised by the lack of non-Russian tourists at what must be the height of the tourist season. 90% of those in line with us at the Hermitage were Russians, and the lack of services geared to non-Russians highlighted the trend. Elena aside, we found most to be quite unfriendly. Whoever claimed that a smile will get you far in any language has obviously not been to Russia. To be fair, the rudeness is not solely directed at non-Russians. We witnessed Russians being disgustingly rude to each other, too. They just don’t have any concept of customer service and – as a result – Russia seems in general a pretty unhappy place to travel around.
It goes without saying that the Russian food we experienced in St Pete was appalling. I’m not quite sure how British good gets such a bad rap when there’s practically an entire continent of Russian food out here. We did eat the first night at the local “Tolsity Friar”, but I confess that one look at Lloyd’s dinner was enough to send me scrambling to the Golden Arches (Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!). With my promise to be a little more adventurous on the food front on this trip, Lloyd and I had a bit of a bet going as to who would crumble first. Officially it was me as I took us there. But in practice, Lloyd actually ate more than half of ‘my’ Big Mac, so I think it’s a draw. Weird note: the ketchup was considerably sweeter in McD’s Russia. And the Coke was smaller. But everything else was exactly the same. Expect for the customer service of course, “ Tek yer Beeg Myek ‘n gyet owt-uv-moy-vey!”
The next morning, we strolled around St. Isaac’s golden domes and found a lighter lunch at a local bakery that we wished we’d found before surrendering to the Golden Arches. Here, we DID enjoy some local cuisine: meat pasties (pirog) and sweet fruit pastries more than hit the spot before our mid-afternoon journey to Moscow to catch the Trans-Siberian (TSR), which is where Lloyd will pick up the story….