Learning Russian in St Petersburg – The Dining Out Experiment

One of my primary interests and language goals was learning the vocabulary and language structures necessary to eat out in restaurants in Russia. While I’ve done this a number of times in other countries, trying to find restaurant where the staff did not speak English in St. Petersburg’s city center became impossible.

After explaining my woes to Anna my homestay host she suggested I try the restaurants near our metro stop at Ozerki, 6 metro stops north of the city center. “There they won’t speak English,” she told me.

The strip mall next to a large theater has about 7 or 8 restaurants offering a variety of cuisines. My last week of study I would try a different restaurant each night.

For my first attempt I tried an Italian place at the far end. The menu was mostly Russian but with pictures. Pictures were a general feature of Russian menus as were names and descriptions given in both Russian and English. Practicing reading therefore became pointless.

Just as Anna predicted, the server spoke no English and when I didn’t understand, which was frequent in this first encounter, we had to find a way around it. Several servers when handing me the menu started with an opening question I still don’t understand, although it is something about ordering drinks now or later. I got around it by asking for time to look over the menu. At the Italian restaurant there were also questions about wanting additional parmesan and fresh ground pepper. This was a treasure trove of information.

There were also issues of protocol. I asked for a table rather than just sitting down on a half empty patio. The server looked at me a little strangely for this. Then there was the issue of the credit card machine. In Russia they hand you the machine rather than putting the card in for you. I wasn’t sure what to do with the machine, but the problem was quickly resolved.

Other experiences were not so rich. In some cases when you don’t speak the language well servers say as little as possible. While this makes it easier to understand it takes the fun and practice out of it.

At two restaurants the server did speak a little English. At one he knew enough to tell me, “I don’t speak English.” Yay! And at another one, he asked me the, “Do you want drinks now?” question in English when I didn’t understand it in Russia. However, with continued persistence on my part to speak only Russian, he reverted back to Russian and it ended up one of the better experiences.

I should be braver and ask more questions, but it feels overwhelming just to do the little I do. I do, however, get great a sense of accomplishment when they bring me the food and the drinks I’ve ordered in Russian.

I practice restaurant vocabulary and phrases in my afternoon private lessons, but practicing phrases in the classroom is one thing while using language in real life is something else. I can say a phrase right a hundred times when it doesn’t matter and still get it wrong in the restaurant.

By the end of the week I had made progress. I was more comfortable with the setting, knew the routine and recognized most of the phrases thrown at me. Authentic practice is essential!

August 2019

For links to all the posts in this series see the St Petersburg page.

For more posts on travel in Russia see the Russia page.

2 thoughts

    1. Thank you again Katy for your words of encouragement. We’ll be back in St Petersburg a week from today!
      Russki Fritski? 🙂 (actually картофель фри)

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