Expat tales: To Russia for love

16:00, Jan 18 2014
HISTORY PRESERVED: The splendid Church of the Saviour of the Spilt blood.

St Petersburg in Russia is a beautiful city full of surprises according to Kiwi Renee Williams.

Why did you move to St Petersburg?

My fiance, also a Kiwi, was offered the position of executive chef at one of St Petersburg's most famous hotels, Grand Hotel Europe by Orient Express.

 	 Renee Williams.
Renee Williams.

Nowadays with tighter visa restrictions in Europe, it is getting increasingly difficult for Kiwis to have the opportunity to live and work in Europe. So when this position was offered to us we jumped at the chance.

What do you do there?

At the moment I am a lady of leisure, but am an active member for the International Women's Club where I am responsible for the club's communications.


What do you like or dislike about life in Russia?

I love the unexpected surprises that happen regularly in St Pete's. For example, the other night I was learning to tango in the first restaurant that was opened in St Petersburg (in the early 1900s), then the next I was watching ballet and opera.

Another reason is that it's a city full of passion, history and culture and one that is constantly being preserved. From the cities that I have visited in Europe it is one of the best for preserving its history and the most beautiful.

The only thing I don't like is the short days at the moment. Currently it doesn't get light till 10.30am and then disappears again around 4 to 5pm.

How does the cost of living compare to New Zealand?

Cost of living is expensive, like anywhere in Europe. Currently we live on site and are fortunate not to have to worry about expenses such as utilities. That being said, the public transportation system is cheap and efficient, and dining out is quite affordable.

What do you do on weekends?

Normally my fiance works, so generally it is a relatively quiet weekend. However, we would discover a new restaurant/bar and head to one of the many museums or cathedrals. Alternatively, I could be baking cookies with friends or taking pictures of this beautiful city.

What do you think of the food?

The food in St Petersburg is up and coming. There are several Pan-Asian restaurants opening in the next 12 months, which will bring a greater variety of cuisine to the city.

There is also talk of the Michelin guide coming to St Pete's very soon, which is very exciting for us foodies. Our favourite Russian food is Pelmeni, Borsch and Beef Strogonoff.

What's the best way to get around?

By foot. Living in the centre of the city allows me to walk everywhere. However, there is an excellent public transportation system with the metro and buses being a fast and cheap way to get around.

What's the shopping like?

Shopping is expensive and has little variety compared to Asia. Many expats head across the border to Finland, fly to Dubai or wait till they get home to stock up.

What's the nightlife like?

The nightlife is exciting. There are so many theatres and clubs that we can enjoy, with more appearing every day. The Russians enjoy entertaining.

What is your favourite part of St Petersburg?

My favourite part of the city is Nevsky Prospect (the most famous street in St Pete's), which is in hub of the culture centre. A few steps away we have the Church of the Saviour of the Spilt blood, the Singer building, Kazansky Cathedral, Russian Museum and the Hermitage (the Winter Palace).

What time of year is best to visit?

The White Knights festival is a great time to visit (June-July). This is when there is 22 hours of daylight and there is so much happening on the streets during this time. However the crowds are huge. Even later in the year round September-October is a great time to visit, as you can easily avoid all the queues to the tourist attractions. Also the city is full of the colours of autumn.

What's your must-do thing for visitors?

Visit the Hermitage/Winter Palace and see Catherine The Great's personal art collection. The building itself is worth the visit, as it was once the winter residence of the Tsars.

What are your top tips for tourists?

Don't be afraid about not speaking the language - Russians are very welcoming and will show you a good time even if you communicate only by sign language. If you come in winter, make sure you bring all of your merinos and thermals. Temperatures drop to -20 degrees Celsius.

Hire an English speaking guide and driver for the day. They tell you some personal stories as well as some other interesting facts about tourist attractions. Do take care when out and about. Be sure to place all valuables in the hotel safe and be aware of your surroundings.

How easy is it for you to get back to New Zealand?

It's quite easy although it is a long trip with 30 hours of flying via Dubai and Sydney or Dubai, Bangkok, Sydney with Emirates. It's always good to have a long stopover in Dubai, as there is so much to see and it's in the same time zone.

If you know an expat who wants to share the inside knowledge on their home away from home, email escape@star-times.co.nz with Expat in the subject line.

Sunday Star Times