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First impressions of St. Petersburg

Editor's note: Contributing Editor RaeJean Stokes is traveling around the former U.S.S.R. this holiday season and reporting back to us with occasional missives about life on the other side of what was once the Iron Curtain.

On our first day of Russian language classes here at Extra Class Language School in St. Petersburg, Russia, our teacher commented on our poor choice to visit Russia in the winter. The weather is indeed terrible, but not in the way you'd expect.

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Not only is it uncharacteristically warm (in the 40s and low 50s), which makes me angry for having to lug around my heavy sweaters, furry Uggs and thick winter coat, but it's dark until 10:00 a.m. and dark again by 4:00 p.m. Today it's raining, and right now it's 3:00 p.m. ... but looking out the window, you'd think it was much later. This is as light as it's been all day.

Rain and gloom notwithstanding, St. Petersburg itself is beautiful. We've spent the last three days walking up and down Nevsky Prospekt, the city's heart and main thouroughfare. Most of the major sights are along the way— the Hermitage, the Winter Palace, and numerous other architectural gems. Truly, the architecture is breathtaking and I was pleasantly surprised not to find a city of depressing Khruschev-inspired multi-story apartment buildings.

I was not pleasantly surprised, however, to find out how expensive this city is. Coming from Ukraine, I had hoped to be able to get lunch for $1. Not so lucky here. Lunch for two, even at a cheap cafe, is around $8. It's a good thing we're staying with a host family as part of our language immersion program, and they keep us well fed.

They also, by the way, live in a Soviet-looking monstrosity. It's made of cement, and perched up on giant legs to (we think) prevent flood damage, seeing as it's located by the Gulf of Finland. The elevator is something from a bad scary movie, but we're on the 21st floor and there aren't many other options. So, the elevator: It hisses and jolts with each stop, and I have to try really hard to keep from asking myself when the last time the guys from Otis tested its reliabilty. To be honest, I'd rather not know.

Next time, some observations about Russian culture.

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