BART face prepared me for Russian metro
Like most students planning on studying abroad, my friends and I devoured all the information we could find about the city of St. Petersburg before coming here. We talked with alumni, professors, native Russians, all intent on learning everything we could about weather, culture, prices, drinking, transportation, people, in hopes that when we got to Russia nothing would be a surprise.
It’s a stupid hope, obviously. It’s impossible to know a city by word-of-mouth, and even if you could, what would be the point? There would be nothing exciting, nothing jarring or startling, once you got there. There’s no fun in that.
But, of course, I still tried as hard as I could to download the nation of Russia into my brain before moving here. I got some useful advice that made my transition here much smoother and allowed me to mentally prepare myself, but that’s not interesting.
Here is the worst advice I got:
My home university set up a meeting between alumni of the St. Petersburg program and the fresh meat. There were four of them and four of us (for some reason, a lot more people prefer to study in France or Spain instead of in the former Soviet Union), and we had a couple of hours of questions and answers. They gave great advice about what life was like as a student and as a Californian in St. Petersburg, and then they told us about the metro.
“People don’t talk on the metro. Never.”
They explained how unpleasant the atmosphere of the metro trains was, how people stare straight ahead with dour expressions and lifeless eyes (it’s called “metro face”), and how uncomfortable the silence will make a non-native feel.
“You’ll see young couples making out on the metro, but you will never see them talking. If someone is talking to you, their partner is picking your pocket.”
We all laughed at this top-side down culture, where people were more welcome to swap saliva with someone instead of swapping words. Later, in Russia, the coordinaters of the program gave us a similar talk, and encouraged us to practice our metro faces before braving the trains. There was something so very Russian about these metro trains that Americans needed to be schooled in, and as an avid rider of the Bay Area’s metro system (BART), it worried me.
Then the day finally came when I had no other option then to take the metro. I prepared myself, I put myself into a detached state of mind, trying to be more like an anthropologist than a commuter. I was ready to witness the brave new world that was the Russian subway. These are my notes from the experience;
1. It is slightly terrifying to get on an escalator so long you cannot see the bottom of it (the subways in St. Petersburg are some of the deepest in the world).
2. Wow, these stations are really beautiful.
3. If you took away the fur coats and boots and replaced them with sneakers and lingering marijuana fumes, this would be my weekly BART commute to San Francisco.
It was almost disappointing. I was ready to feel uncomfortable and out of my comfort zone, but there I was, back in Berkeley, California, riding to my destination just like everyone else. I had tried to perfect my Russian metro face along with all of the other American students, but looking at my reflection in the window I realized that all I needed was BART face. It’s the same thing, Californians just don’t have a name for it.
I needed something that would make this experience decidedly Russian, and not just my Californian morning commute. I rummaged through my memory, recalling all the warnings we had been given about the cruel and unusual metro.
“Aha!” I thought, “Making out! Kissing on public transit is still strange, right?”
But then, with a sinking in the pit of my stomach, I remembered a time on a BART when I had made out with a boyfriend SPECIFICALLY because it was less awkward than the two of us having a conversation. It was the final nail in the coffin — the St. Petersburg metro had nothing for me.
I still don’t know what the takeaway from this experience is. Maybe it’s “Take advice with a grain of salt,” or “Commuter trains are the same the world over,” or “All Russians are secretly from the Bay Area and they just don’t know it yet.” Or maybe the best way to interpret it is, “Wherever you go you will find a piece of home.” You just might not like it when you do.