One of the strangest and most surprising things about being here was noticing just how many American fast food restaurants there are in Russia. Of course there’s a MacDonalds and then probably equally as popular are KFC and Burger. Then my friend sent me a picture of Papa Johns next to his apartment? And my other friend and I found a random Cinnabon*? That’s not to mention there’s a TGI Fridays. Starbucks. Subway. And then the Russian fast food place too, Teremok (which even has a stand in NYC now).
In Russia the idea of “sit down at a table” is very strong. If you go out to eat in a restaurant there will probably be three or four courses (nobody skimps on dessert here), your food will take a very long time to come, and there’s no concept of turnover so you can literally sit there as long as you want. Oh and don’t even bother asking for separate checks. It’s frankly impossible. While this can be as frustrating as ever when you’re pressed for time trying to rush to a concert or having to run to an ATM when you find you’re frustratingly mere one hundred roubles short, I like this restaurant culture.
It’s pleasant and communal. I like the idea of sitting, sharing food, and actually taking your time to enjoy the food and the conversation. In the humdrum rush of the general American “I’m so busy way” I think it’s rare to really take the time to sit with friends for like 2 hours (probably more; I spent almost four hours once in a Teremok) and just really sit there and not feel pushed or prodded in any direction. Also since capitalism is a slow moving boat and tipping isn’t a thing, the hospitality of the waiters will be—eh, mediocre at best so you’ll really be left alone to enjoy your food, your thoughts, and your friends.
Another weird thing about restaurant culture is that you can ask the waiter for the Wifi password and that’s completely fine. Actually you can ask just about anyone anywhere for the Wi-fi password (my best friend here at this program and I ordering plane tickets off the communal Burger King wifi). Sometimes you have to call a number in order to activate the Wifi. But usually, you can just ask or guess it (seriously I thought it was a joke when I read that one of the most common passwords is the numbers 1-8 numerically forwards or backwards). This is super useful especially if you don’t have data on your phone.
One of the things I don’t like is that water is not free (my friend and I before we figured out how roubles worked once spent the equivalent of $10 on a bottle of water [more than our entire meal]) and people look at you strange if you’re not just constantly drinking tea. I guess you could try to drink the water from the restroom, but the water in St. Petersburg is notoriously bad and undrinkable. Also speaking of restrooms, you have to pay to use the restroom (usually not much like the equivalent of 50 cents), but I suppose that’s also a European thing.
But back to fast food, no, I haven’t been to all the fast food chains in St. Petersburg. And it is definitely kind of embarrassing to slink into MacDonalds to order a Big Mac as an American in Russia with your painful American accent (or god forbid you don’t understand each other and the conversation switches to English). But I also think it’s interesting because each of the fast food places I’ve noticed in the different places I’ve traveled have different things.
In Budapest, MacDonalds had curly fries. In Estonia you can buy a burger called a Fred. In Russia, MacDonalds is high end (like super clean and super large). You can also buy fish and chips here. Oh and there’s a special “Russian Sandwich” at KFC with pickles, and you can also get a chicken nugget sandwich at Subway.
There’s also this beautiful thing in Russia called Business Lunch (a total cognate; if you say it with a Russian accent boom you’re speaking Russian) where you can get a really good deal on a lot of food (perfect for the carefully budgeting college student). The business lunch at KFC is a personal favorite. Speaking of KFC, I remember once, I was at noon grabbing something quick and an older man lumbered in and just ordered a beer! I remember sitting there shocked like: This is possible?
It’s a little embarrassing but honestly I think I’ve eaten more fast food here in Russia than I’ve ever eaten before in America. I think there’s definitely a stereotype about fat Americans only eating fast food, and my Russian friends would look at me strange when I would go with them to like MacDonalds and be like “wow, this is actually the first BigMac I’ve ever eaten” or “I’ve never been to KFC before.”
It’s kind of fun to explain to them that I was raised in outdoorsy, health-food-crazy Montana and go to a school where most people are vegetarian or vegan (another thing, finding actual vegetarian food in Russia is possible but really hard if you don’t eat meat). And it’s also fun for me to sit down to breakfast and realize that I’m eating macaroni and a hotdog and that’s totally ok.
And for one last tidbit, ketchup is very different here. It has a lot more vinegar and it’s totally normal here to “season” your plain spaghetti with ketchup (and eat a hotdog next to it). And complimentary condiments are not a thing here (although unlimited refills are definitely a thing at Burger King).
So I guess to conclude, please don’t get the wrong idea, no I didn’t eat just fast food in Russia but fast food has actually been an interesting entry into the Russian perspective of America and an interesting view into each country I’ve visited’s own unique food preferences and preparations. It also makes me aware of just how much American culture has spread around the world and the incredible influence that it has, but that’s for another blog post.
Till next time!
(also if you want to read more here’s a link to a NY Times article about the expansion of American fast food chains in Russia http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/04/business/global/russia-becomes-a-magnet-for-american-fast-food-chains.html )
(*update this Cinnabon has since disappeared without a trace and we’re not entirely sure it ever existed in the first place)