It’s difficult to write pointedly when life here is such a smorgasbord of wildly unrelated experiences. Maybe it is just the lack of routine, the new city, the different language, and the abundance of four-inch heels and tight clothing that often leaves my mind unable to grasp a coherent thought, let alone one to sustain a whole article. I suppose I could discuss raging to Russian reggae (yes, it exists) in a 1,200 year-old town on the border of Estonia, or singeing my sensitive (censored) in a steamy sauna (known here as a banya, and far hotter than its Western counterpart), but why delve into any of the aforementioned when I could captivate you with titillating tales of… transportation throughout Petersburg! Before you throw down the paper, let me assure you that this subway contains all the quirks, quandaries, and qualities one might expect from the “cultural capital” of Russia.
Use of the metro is widespread, and though the metro doesn’t require the packing-in characteristic of Tokyo’s system, it is necessary to give a good shove during rush hour to ensure a spot on the train. Costing only 20 rubles per ride (70 cents), the metro is a relatively cheap option that, when compared to New York’s outrageously expensive MTA, appears downright charitable. What is more, students and retirees essentially ride for free! Unfortunately, this does not apply to expats such as myself, but it is a commendable feature nonetheless. The metro stations themselves vary in quality and aesthetic appeal, and, while not rivaling the veritable architectural wonders that make up Moscow’s mass transit, I can say with a good deal of certainty that they outdo those of the Big Apple.
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the metro here is its depth. Originally modeled after Venice and built on a swamp, St. Petersburg is composed of a group of small islands and the mainland, where the Neva River meets the Gulf of Finland. Thus many canals, subsidiaries of the Neva, and the Neva itself divide the city. The multitude of waterways (the Neva being a rather formidable one), combined with the marsh-like land underlying the city, presented a considerable hurdle for the metro engineers. Not to be outdone by Mother Nature, they built the world’s deepest subway system, snaking about far below the city and incalculable gallons of icy northern waters. What this feat of modern engineering translates into for the everyday passenger (other than ideas for a column in a college paper) is one hell of an escalator ride.
After paying the fare and slipping through the turnstile, one is confronted with a seemingly interminable descent into… Well, the interminable: The bottom is often not visible from the top. Whatever waits below is always a surprise. During the journey to the center of the earth, which takes minutes, it is critical that one follow the “stand on the right, walk/run/fly down the left” standard of escalating etiquette. The speeds at which the leftists (in the escalator sense of the word) hurtle past are altogether uncanny, and though there are monitors stationed at either end who are supposed to stop the crazed commuters from barreling down the escalator, I have yet to witness a single apprehension (though I have seen numerous nasty tumbles). For those without a pressing engagement or daredevil urge for adrenaline, this extended leisure time can be spent conversing with a friend, people-watching the assembly line of passengers headed in the opposite direction (always interesting), or writing a small novel.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the metro here is the role it plays for libertine lovebirds. I’m not sure if it is the fact that much of the city’s college-age and young adult population still lives with its parents, or if exhibitionism is all the rage in Russia right now, but my word, do they put on a show down there. Never have I seen such public parades of passion. I should add “prolonged make-out session” to the aforementioned list of escalator activities. I can say with some confidence that this is a relatively recent development, as many of the over-40 locals with whom I converse are quick to point out this trend, and go to great lengths to assure me that this is not how things were done in their day. Like it or not, witnessing someone’s romance on the metro is more or less a fait accompli here, so, voyeurs, eat your hearts out, and everyone else, learn to look away/past it.
As far as the actual functionality of the system, it runs very well. There are running clocks at every stop that show how long it has been since the last train left, as well as the current time. The interval between trains never exceeds three minutes—so no anxious foot tapping or second-guessing the decision to take the subway. In addition to punctuality, stations and platforms are all nearly spotless, a virtue I attribute mainly to two things. Firstly, eating and drinking are rare, if not prohibited, then strongly discouraged. The other factor in this equation is the small army of civil servants, each armed with a broom, dustpan, and dark blue/neon orange vest, that patrols the stations, immediately doing away with invading dust, leaves, crumbs, or what have you.
There are, however, two significant drawbacks. For one, some might find the distance between stations rather off-putting. The length between stops can make the intervals of New York look like hop scotch squares, but it simply requires some getting used to. Second, the last train leaves at around midnight. Knowing this and the location of one’s stop along the line, it is possible to estimate when, in fact, the last train will come through. But that is definitely a gamble that, if lost, could leave one far from home and looking for an unregistered gypsy cab or otherwise interested passer-by as a means of getting home.
This description far from does justice to Petersburg transit as whole, as it completely skips over: the wildly erratic and confusing public bus system, a competing and more confusing private bus system whose drivers do their very best to mimic the insane driver of the Knight Bus (“Harry Potter” reference), trolleybuses that run in the middle of two way streets, gypsy cabs, and the general cab culture among private drivers willing to drive somewhere if the price is right (one is advised to smell the driver’s breath and make sure there are not other suspicious characters inside before agreeing to anything).
Like I said earlier, I can’t portray the big picture here, but I hope this peep into Pete was worth your time. Find someone to smooch on the subway, and you, too, could live the life of a Petersburgian