Traveling Russia and the Baltic States
By Chris Tubutis
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Ever been to Russia or any of the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia)? Life is pretty hard for people who live there; western Europe seems like Heaven compared to those places. The things we take for granted here in the US — we're truly spoiled to live here. It's pretty difficult to find something resembling a grocery store in Russia; most everything is bought at kiosks and shops smaller than gas station convenience stores located at the Metro stations (most every-day-people don't have cars because they're too expensive). And these little stores . . . talk about holdovers from the Communist era. There are multiple cash registers, usually one per wall. All the products for sale are behind counters. For example, I can specifically remember this one shop at a Metro stop in St. Petersburg. One wall had a refrigerated dairy case with bacon and eggs and cheese and such. Related items on the wall behind it. Adjacent wall had liquids, such as soft drinks, beer, vodka, water, etc. (don't drink tap water, you'll likely get sick). The wall adjacent to that had frozen items in a freezer case, related items on the wall behind it. The fourth wall had bread items.
You stand in line at the register associated with the particular wall your wanted item is stocked on. When it's your turn, you tell the attendant you want this and that and the other, the attendant retrieves your items, rings them up, and takes your money. You want a bag to take it all home in? That costs extra (which, honestly, seems kind of typical of what I've seen in Europe in general, including western Europe). Say you're at one wall buying eggs and you also want a bottle of Coke that, although located on the adjacent wall, is real close to the corner and within easy reach of the dairy wall attendant. Ha. "Ohhhh, no no no! You have to go to that register over there to purchase that!" You can easily spend a half hour or more in a store the size of a closet to buy $5-worth of items.
As an aside, even larger stores are sometimes like this. There's a store kind of like Best Buy we went into to buy camcorder tapes. These tapes are located in a glass case up on the second floor. You find an attendant to show you the tape you're interested in buying (say, so you can read the back of the label/package). When you decide you want to purchase one, the attendant fills out a little slip of paper. You take that to a cash register window downstairs and pay your money, you receive a receipt in return. You then go to a third counter and hand the attendant the just-received receipt, they look at it and verify you've paid for the tape. They tear a small rip into the top of it, then return it to you along with the tape you just purchased. You are then free to leave, unless you're stopped by the security guards at the doors who want to check your torn receipt and the items you're walking out with.
Kiosks typically are somewhat specialized. One kiosk sells liquid stuff, another kiosk sells soaps and detergents, another kiosk sells bread, another kiosk sells video tapes of (probably) pirated movies, another kiosk sells shoes and boots — you get the idea.
Oh, and let's talk about buying train tickets! You go to this place called a Booking Office, a large, concrete, dirty, one-story building with little booths along the walls, staffed with one person per booth. Plexiglass windows separate the public from the attendants. Hordes of people and no place to sit. You need to find the booths that sell tickets for the train you're interested in. In my experience, there are usually four booths selling intra-regional (inside the region; regions are kind of like counties in the US) tickets. If you want to pay with a credit card, you need to locate the specific booths that can accept such payment, usually two of the four. You choose a line to stand in and you stand and wait your turn. And wait. And wait. And wait.
After an hour of waiting one time, we said "To heck with this!" and went to a local travel agency that sells the same tickets at a slightly higher price but lines are usually shorter and there's seating available. Well, this travel agency wasn't much better. It had four attendants sitting at a counter. One attendant sold train tickets, one sold plane tickets, one sold bus tickets, and one sold boat tickets. There were about 8 to 10 people ahead of us, all wanting train tickets. So, while this sole woman sells train tickets to all these people, the other three women all sit there and pretend to work. Organizing papers, cutting ragged edges from torn-off receipts, menial stuff like that. One woman even sat there and filed her nails. All these "workers" sit there and do virtually nothing while all the customers wait their turn for the train-ticket lady. This is normal for these people, and it still took over an hour of waiting before it was our turn.
In both places (Booking Office, travel agency) booth attendants may at any time decide to take a 15-minute break, leaving customers hanging around and waiting.
Oh, and let's not forget the Heroes of Russia, people who I guess did something good for their country at one time. These people get certain benefits, one of which is the ability to go directly to the front of any line they choose.
But wait, there's more! Let's not forget about buying bus tickets! You buy these at the bus station, which looks a lot like a Booking Office except that it offers seating. The same booths along the dirty concrete walls, Plexiglass windows separating people, etc. Just like anywhere else, specific windows for specific items that you want. While you're at the booth where you purchase tickets, don't dare try and ask the attendant about schedules of the bus she sells tickets for; information like that is available only at the Information booth.
But wait! There's even more! Let's say that you want to change your bus/train/whatever reservations after you've bought the tickets. Say, for a different departure time. Well, to do this, naturally you go stand in line. When it's your turn, you explain what you want to do, then get yelled at by the attendant. "Just use the tickets you have, you've already got them!" When you insist on changing things, you sell back the tickets you bought but at a price reduced from what you purchased them at. You then go stand in another line to purchase new tickets.
I won't get into things like public transportation infrastructure (buses, trams, and trolleys from the 1960s, affectionately known as Soviet wheezebuckets) or public bathrooms (broken plumbing, things look as if they haven't been cleaned in literally years), or water bubbling up through the ground because the pipe below has been broken for three years, or the electrical infrastructure that only sometimes works but doesn't affect enough people to make it worth repairing. This is all normal for these people, they're used to it and don't know anything better.
Life in the Baltic States is significantly better than life in Russia, but it's still pretty far below western standards. By the time you get to Helsinki or Stockholm or Balestrand or Copenhagen or Berlin, you'll think you died and went to Heaven! Never been to Switzerland but I would imagine it's pretty much like the rest of western Europe — somewhat different from the US but still reasonably clean and comfortable, and radically different from the former Communist countries.
Chris Tubutis is a a third-generation Lithuanian-American with an interest in Lithuania and Russia. He grew up during the Cold War and remembers being afraid to go to sleep at night because he thought the Russians were going to bomb the United States overnight. The only thing he knew about Lithuania at that age was that "it was a small country taken over by Russia some time prior, and Russia was a horrible place to live. Everybody needed 'papers', people were sent to labor camps for owning books written by the wrong authors, the infamous KGB, etc."
Used with permission of the author.