Softly spoken, now in English, now in Russian, he welcomes us, explains the concept: ‘It’s all about atmosphere. You can feel it.’ Here, there is unlimited tea and coffee, there’s toast and jam and biscuits, but that’s not what you pay for. Instead, you pay for the time you spend here: ‘Choose a clock,’ he says, gesturing to a brightly coloured selection of clocks beside the counter. Less than five pence per minute.
‘Today is English-speaking day,’ he says, laughing when he gathers that we are English students hoping to practice our Russian. ‘A lot of people here like to speak English.’
Sabina, our new Russian friend who we arranged to meet here, shows us round. There are several rooms, a balcony, a tiny kitchen. An art display along the corridor. Some people are working on their laptops, some are playing board games, some just sitting and talking.
We brew a pot of tea, make a stack of toast and find a table in a cosy room with a piano and a guitar and even a clarinet on the windowsill. It doesn’t take much persuasion for Saul to play the piano for us, and we sit back and enjoy the warmth that enfolds us after the cold and the rain outside. Then we get down to business: speaking Russian. Sabina didn’t realise it was English-speaking day either, so she is happy to indulge us. It is such a joy to be able to hold a conversation in Russian! We help each other out when a word is failing, and Sabina listens, and understands; and we understand her as well.
‘Вы хорошо говорите по-русски,’ Sabina tells us. ‘You speak Russian well.’
It is priceless to hear that, the compliment expressed so genuinely. We put so much into this and finish every day here shattered. Yet it is a success. Slowly, slowly, we are improving.
Sabina has come to St Petersburg to study, and now rarely goes home. She hopes to work as an engineer in the oil industry, and St Petersburg is the best place for that. She is curious about university in England, and we compare the education system in Russia and in England. Then: ‘Ещё чай (more tea)?’
We discuss tea stereotypes (Russians are also great lovers of tea, but Sabina prefers coffee) and she asks us about where we live in England. She recommends some off-the-beaten-track Petersburg highlights.
We are about to leave when a Russian girl nervously invites us in English to share her cake, because it is her birthday. We cannot refuse. She tells us that she won a writing competition and the prize is to go to Scotland for a week in the autumn: she has never been to the UK before and is really looking forward to it.
‘The cake’s from Nevskiy Berega,’ Sabina whispers to us. ‘That’s the best bakery in Petersburg.’
‘Would you like to join us for dinner?’ they ask. ‘We are going to cook together, and you are very welcome.’
Unfortunately, we have to decline, but we promise to come again another time.
Walking back to the metro in the rain afterwards, the memory of the anti-café impressed on our minds, St Petersburg suddenly seems so much more real. We had spent time with Russians the same age as us, we had held an entire conversation in Russian. It is not sustainable to spend every morning in class and every afternoon visiting a tourist attraction: it makes the city seem superficial and one-dimensional. But that afternoon, it felt like we stepped into the real Russia.