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Culture news
The end of an era
02.03.2006 18:02

night_life A well-known figure on St. Petersburg’s nightlife scene, Aileen Exeter of City Bar, is parting ways with the popular expat hangout she established nearly 10 years ago.

This weekend sees a series of parties that the American bar-owner described as the “big hurrah” for City Bar. But while Exeter is leaving for New York later this month, some of the bar’s old-time staffers are determined to keep the place going without her.

Exeter’s exit leaves her pondering the decade she has spent running a successful business in Russia. Among the highs and the lows, Exeter says that living in Russia long-term can be lonely for foreigners.

“My definition of loneliness is when you watch Russian TV, or any foreign TV, and there’s an American television show on, and you scoot your chair right up close to your TV so you can hear English underneath [the Russian dubbing] — that’s when you’re lonely,” said Exeter, speaking with The St. Petersburg Times this week.

Described as an “American Pub & Eatery” on its sign, City Bar has been a little bit of the U.S.A in the center of St. Petersburg since it opened in July 1996, helping foreigners who live in or are visiting the city to combat loneliness or homesickness.

City Bar’s first location was in the Cappella building, but in 2002 it move to its current location not far away on Millionnaya Ulitsa.

As one unprepared Russian visitor put it, being at City Bar on a smoke-filled night was the equivalent of watching an American movie with a motley crowd of expats, foreign students and consulate officials making themselves at home and chatting freely in English.

A hit not least because of the genial personality of Exeter, who meets and chats with guests, City Bar was more than just a bar. It also served as a community center, a meeting place and an “idea exchange,” she said, with some people discussing their businesses and making valuable contacts.

City Bar has also celebrated American holidays and lent English-language books and videos to English starved visitors.

“I had several marriages at City Bar, so it’s always nice,” Exeter said. “People met here and they now are married.”

According to Exeter, over the years visitors to City Bar have had something in common.

“The one unifying thing that I see is that they’re all a bit of a character, they all have something in them that makes them memorable,” she said.

“Not a sort of crooked type of person — I think that’s global, and in a sense I like that anywhere. But it’s been great. And it was great for me to deal with everybody on a daily basis, to run a bar. It’s certainly exposed me to a lot of people.”

City Bar’s spirit was enhanced by its multi-cultural workforce, Exeter said.

“There was a guy from Sri Lanka, [people from] Uzbekistan, Russia, of course, Canada, Sweden. It’s a fairly international team, but America is an international place, and it’s a part of the American culture when you find very many people.”

American multi-culturalism did not always go down well with some of the Russian personnel, Exeter said.

“I remember being at the Cappella and I had a black guy working for me, and they locked the bathroom door and refused to give him a key, because he was a black man,” she said.

“I went crazy, I said ‘You cannot do this!’”

City Bar’s specialty is international food with a stress on simple American cuisine. Exeter is especially proud of its hand-ground hamburgers. “When you do a hand-ground hamburger, you’re not overheating the meat. Isn’t it neat?” she said.

Last year, City Bar hosted a Hurricane Katrina benefit. Organized by Jennifer Gaspar from FIND (Fund for International Nonprofit Development), and featuring the local Alexei Kanunnikov Jazz Band playing New Orleans jazz for free and New Orleans artist David Bienn, the event raised $1,000 for the Red Cross.

“One night, one city, not very many people, actually. I think, we had 60-70 people, but that was great,” said Exeter, adding that City Bar’s charity activities have also included helping local children’s homes.

Exeter first came to Russia in April 1979, initially spending four months a year in St. Petersburg and eight months a year in the U.S., before getting involved with City Bar. Now she wants to return to that initial scheme, but reversed, with more time spent in the U.S. working with mortgaging while helping to expose St. Petersburg’s small businesses to Western financing and markets.

Although Exeter is leaving, several City Bar workers are eager to keep the place alive. Polina Yeryomenko, who was once a waitress there, said this week that she would manage the bar with former bartender Fyodor Vermus. Exeter, who leaves on Feb. 15, described her time with City Bar as “nine and a half great years.”

“Someone said to me, if I feel sad, and I said, ‘Of course I feel sad, it’s the end of something I’ve done every day. It’s scary, too, but it’s has to happen at some point and it does.’ My parents don’t get any younger, and I just feel I have to spend time with my family, too.

“I’m very positive about Russia. I think that’s what’s needed, I mean, people who have good experiences, good times and positive words to say about anything is great. I have business in America, so it’s easier for me to deal with this business type of thing. Same stuff.”

City Bar farewell parties are held this weekend at 10 Millionaya Ulitsa.

By Sergey Chernov

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