Sunday, June 22, 2008

When Shopping In St. Petersburg, Leave Your Levi's At Home

St. Petersburg--I just got back from the mall, and the way it appears would have been unimaginable five years ago when I was last in St. Petersburg. Back then, my cohort of American college students traded information about Western-style stores. In the Soviet-style stores, all of the products were behind the counter, and you had to ask the salesperson for each item you wanted. It was worth going to the out-of-the-way Western-style stores, in order to avoid displaying our foreign accents when ordering, and to be able to read the labels of products before purchasing. Not only are most stores "Western-style" now, with an abundance of products in every one, but also there are now multiple malls in St. Petersburg.

By "mall," I don't mean Gostiinii Dvor or Passazh, which are mainstays of St. Petersburg and stand opposite each other on Nevsky Prospect. While even these have undergone changes since I was last here, brimming with nice products (the Wii!), there is still something that makes them distinct from American shopping centers. You go to Gostiinii Dvor to buy the things you need, not because shopping is entertainment. And Pasazh is too fancy to be like anything we have in America. While the stores are comparable to American stores, the whole atmosphere of the center is "grand European." I felt underdressed being there last week.

The mall I went to today is a completely different breed of shopping experience. The name alone shows its distinction: Grand Canyon. It is huge, with lots of glass, those faux-marble floors typical of malls, benches throughout so you can rest as you make your way through the three levels of American (Converse, Quicksilver), French (Sephora, Yves Rocher), British (Next, the Body Shop), and German (Gerry Weber) stores. The mall has a "Cinema Park" that looks like the entrance to a Disney ride--cavernous, mood lighting, futuristic. There was an arcade with a small go-cart ride for toddlers. Rounding out the mall was "Restaurant Street"--Chinese food, KFC, MacDonald's, Russian blinis, pizza, shwarma.

When I was here five years ago, I could find everything I needed and even some luxuries, like the hair conditioner I used back in the US. But I rarely saw things that I wanted. Today, everywhere I turned I had to fight temptation: I don't need those nice shoes, the big handbag, the fluffy slippers, new eye shadow, or gelato.

And it's like that everywhere in St. Petersburg: multiple coffee shops on every block, sushi on every corner (even in out-of-the-way neighborhoods), stores with beautiful dresses, home furnishings, large sports stores, perfume.

Another big difference between five years ago and now is the cost of living. When I was last here, I could easily afford lunch at a small Indian restaurant off Nevsky. But I went there the other day and paid $25 for a very small meal! Even the Russian equivalent to a fast food restaurant (though there are, of course, the American versions as well, including a Carl, Jr's, which hasn't even made it to NY . . . ) has become expensive. I had a full meal the other day at Teremok, which specializes in blini, and ended up paying almost $10. Five years ago I would have paid $2 or 3.

Even the umbrella I bought at a kiosk was $10, the least expensive I could find. It has already broken, and with another day of rain ahead of me, I wonder if I should go back to the mall in order to indulge the American, I mean, Russian, consumer in me and buy some proper rain gear.

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