Perk: The Winter Vibe
Sometimes (more often than not) it feels that St. Pete is not the best place in the world to spend winter. Every year when November approaches (this is actually when the winter starts to creep up on us here), I find myself dreaming about moving somewhere warmer, to Haiti, for example, or Bora Bora, or Sochi at the very least. However, I know, at the very bottom of my heart, that this sudden desire is fake, and I secretly love winter.
I love the snow, probably because it reminds me of my childhood, with flushed cheeks and wet mittens. I love the sweet smell of pine needles. I love the uncrowded city with all the coolest public spaces and parks all to myself, as most people seem to don’t like to stay outside this weather. I love the special coziness of cafes, sitting beside a window and reading a book cuddled in a warm blanket, sipping steaming hot chocolate, and watching the falling snow outside. I love winter activities like ice skating and skiing. And I even love the cold (probably ‘cause I hate the heat). And most of all, I love the New Year with its gifts, city illumination, old Soviet movies, New Year’s resolutions and long evenings spent with family and friends.
Perk: The Speed
When I was about five, my dad gave me a ledyanka: a piece of plastic shaped like your softest body part, just perfect for sliding down icy hills. I was a clumsy kid and tended to hit my head a lot, but it didn’t stop me from plopping on that thing, picking my feet up and swooshing down the longest, iciest, bumpiest stretch of ice that happened to be the slope of a frozen lake. There’d be snow in my boots and bruises in weird places, but it was way more fun than even riding a bike.
A few years later, my ride got upgraded to vatrushka, a doughnut-like inflated contraption that was much faster as well as cushier. You could fly down the packed snow slope or you could take it down a special course, bobsled style. Friends who are much better at speed wanted to upgrade my skills to actual downhill skiing but that seemed like a quick way to lose some valuable limbs, and I was perfectly happy with mine, so instead, I opted for a Finnish sled, which is essentially a chair on metal runners. You kick off with one foot and glide forward, going nowhere too fast.
This year, I plan to upgrade it to the dog sled - I’ll let them be my speed demons. You too can try various types of sledding, as well as skating and skiing, at Igora, Elagin Park, and other parks around town.
Gripe: The Weather
Winter in St. Petersburg is like a four-month (because it never really ends in February) battle for survival against the elements and your personal Mr. Hyde. No matter how late you wake up in the morning, it’s still pitch black outside, and your flat is cold as hell (at least mine is). So in my case, the first ten minutes of a (not so) bright new day are usually spent on cajoling my inner sloth into leaving the warm, cozy, soft bed for the gloom and doom of reality, which would be impossible were it not for the welcoming prospect of a steaming cup of coffee (or three) and breakfast. But the true battle starts when I’m done with food and have no choice but to go outside and peddle through the muddy slush that covers the streets like a grotty old rug, ducking the icicles, the chilling wind and the hapless fellow passer-bys who look at each other with sad eyes of a deer and a ‘why us?’ question written on their sunken faces.
But every cloud has a silver lining, or at least you can imagine one. That slush, for example. You can look at it as a good leg workout, a greyish-brown gift from nature which obviously wants to save you from the obesity you’re rolling towards with your excessive chocolate consumption. The streets are dull and sunless, that’s true, but look not to the ground but to all the festive decorations that gleefully shine from the otherwise lackluster buildings. Their artificial beaming can’t replace sunshine, of course, but at least the downward trip to a vitamin D deficiency will be a fun and beautiful one. And sometimes (usually once in a fortnight) the sun does make its long-awaited appearance, so you just have to pull through the dismal two-week interval to see the light of the day. All’s well that ends well, isn’t it?
Perk: The Atmosphere
For me, St. Petersburg winter is about dreaming and drama.
Dreaming, because winter’s sleep is so deep that whatever outlandish nightmare, whatever brisk delusion you’re having seems so true that it can make you doubt the reality you wake up to.
Drama, because the cold winds, the piercing chill, and the rare sunshine that is so intense that it’s almost blinding make you truly feel your every moment. Even the morning people who struggle with their usual home-work-home trip look as though they have some meaningful purpose, and nothing beats the blissful, nonchalant expressions on the faces of those who’ve somehow escaped this tiresome ordeal. The contrast of greyish, almost monochrome days and the lit-up, surrealistic evenings turn your life into some kind of poetic fantasy, a canvas violated by the mad genius that the St. Petersburg winter is.
Sure, I sometimes miss the heavy summer rains, and I know that it is the White Nights that St. Petersburg is so famous for, but it is the black days of its winter that I am in love with.
Perk: The empty streets of the best city on Earth
I immensely love St. Petersburg, and I believe that this city is beautiful in any weather and season (yes, I have to doubt my sanity). And the harsh climate of St. Petersburg winter – darkness, muddiness, and the wind blowing from all sides – brings down the number of passers-by I have to compete against to get a glimpse of the beautiful streets shining with fairy lights and festive decorations. That's why I choose the chilliest evening, pour delicious tea into a thermos cup, and go for a walk through my beloved city in proud almost-solitude that is totally impossible in summer.
Getaway: The Wild
To me, there's no greater winter experience than the charming ambient sounds of a forest on a clear day. The crunching of snow underfoot, the creaking of swaying trees, and the occasional sound of an animal or bird somewhere off in the distance. As much as I love being out and about among the twinkling lights of city streets on New Year's, nothing quite compares to spending the day among nature's slumber. Every so often I'll take a train somewhere up north, get off once the scenery outside changes to pines and skerries, and walk wherever the road takes me. In the right place (and weather) it can be an unforgettable experience that really drives it home how majestic and grand nature can be, even when it's deeply asleep.