It is the end of my second week in Moscow, even though it feels like I’ve been here for a lot longer! It may be a surprise to my readers, but I haven’t experienced the culture shock that I was braced for. It certainly was a pleasant surprise to me that Russia isn’t as different from the United States as I thought. Honestly, the biggest shock upon arrival was getting accustomed to Moscow time, which is now 8 hours ahead (they “spring forward” a few weeks after us, so we were here for the switch from 7 to 8 hours).
I was prepared to live in a small closet of a room, living out of my suitcases. I was prepared to eat borsht (beet soup) and boiled cabbage every day. I was also prepared to frown all the time, wear black, fight muggers on the metro, and be stopped by militsia (police) who would demand my passport. Moscow seemed like a scary city and I (along with my parents) questioned my sanity.
Luckily it turned out quite differently! For starters, Russians are not the cold, impersonal people they are stereotyped as being. Although they don’t smile as much as Americans, I feel like a smile is more precious because it is genuine, and I’ve seen many smiles already. Most of them I’ve met have been very friendly and helpful, from teachers to random strangers. The coffee shop waitresses delight in our mistakes, and I’ve already been helped 3 times when I got lost. They are very courteous and hospitable people, and proud of what they have and where they come from. The police are a little scary, but their presence in the wake of the metro bombings is reassuring.
I have a room that is larger than my Athens apartment bedroom, and I have a great view of the city skyline from my window. I have a lovely host mother, Nina Ivanovna, who cooks lots of tasty things, and forces me to eat all of them (oh darn!). The food here is rather bland, since spices besides salt and pepper are more expensive, so instead Russians have strong sauces to put on their food. They also love mayonnaise, which interestingly comes in a large tube instead of a jar, and tastes like Miracle Whip. Nina Ivanovna likes to try to put mayonnaise on my meat, my noodles, my salad, anything! Sometimes I let her, and other times I ask for my favorite plum sauce that is tangy and sweet. Ketchup here is strange too. It is like a mixture between salsa and marinara sauce. Still tasty, but definitely not Heinz! Also, during dinner, each item gets its own plate. I don’t know if this is just Nina, or if all Russians do this.
There are some things to get used to, however. Upon entering the apartment, I have to remove my shoes and put on slippers, called tapochki, to keep the snow or dust out of the apartment. Also, they prefer tea over coffee, so I have a tea break in the morning at school, as well as tea with all of my meals. Because the water in Moscow is bad, Russians have to either buy or boil their water. The first week here was difficult for all of us because we were all jetlagged and always thirsty. Fortunately, our school has giant office water coolers that we drink from throughout the day. It is weird not to see water fountains anywhere (including the gym I’ve been told) and how alcohol costs less than water! Also, due to the metro, we have to plan things in advance because it can take up to an hour for some students to reach some parts of the city. And lastly, and most obvious, it has taken time to get used to reading, speaking, and even thinking in Russian. The first few days I rarely spoke, because it can be scary at first to talk to anybody. But each day I improve, much to the delight of me and my host mother. I hope by the end I will be able to speak more fluently. Time goes by quickly here in Moscow because there is so much to see and do!