It never turns out to be as bad as you think it’s going to be, unless… you refuse to learn the Cyrillic alphabet, like I did. And the chances are, payback for that rebellion is likely to be severe culture shock, like I had. It’s just that I felt like I’d landed on Mars, or perhaps China, but within a month, things had turned around and I was very happy to stay. I’m still here after six years.
It really helps if you can at least READ the jumble of language which abounds around you, and you’ll be surprised at how much you can understand once you can make your way through the crossword puzzle that is the Russian language. So many English words have simply been transliterated because the Russians never had a word for it before. For instance ‘biznes’ is ‘business’; ‘menedger’ is ‘manager’ and so on. It can even be quite fun spotting the latest transliteration.
Apart from language, which is likely to bring you your biggest surprise, there is not much else left to disarm you, except perhaps the traffic. We’ve all seen big traffic before, but in Moscow, it's steadily getting worse. Perhaps it’s just the way they drive here.
Having to keep a family fed and watered is one of your main responsibilities and the sooner you hit the ground running, the better.
Luckily Moscow is a truly 24-hour city so you’ll be able to find everything from nappies and milk to a full weekly shop and books - whatever day or time you need it.
Moscow is being blessed on an almost daily basis with new additions to its supermarket pool and not before time, too. Time was when the only way to shop was in the ‘produkty’ where you had to first go and pay for, say, your milk, get the receipt and then go over to the milk counter and collect your purchase, so there was no wandering around at will simply filling your trolley. Now all that has changed and we even have hypermarkets - located slightly out of town - that are so huge they have 88 tills and staff who race around on rollerblades. Everything is available under one roof and at a good price too.
The only problem is that the rest of the Moscow population are catching onto the joys (did I say ‘joys’?) of supermarket shopping and filling these places ‘en masse’, to the extent that you need to go shopping earlier and earlier in the day for it to be comfortable to be able to wheel round your trolley. Otherwise it is reminiscent of Moscow traffic – jams and gridlocks!
The smaller supermarkets and convenience stores (including the produktys and kiosks) haven’t got as much choice and they are fairly expensive, but they can be found in every area and are good for a quick top-up shop.
There are the pricier and more upmarket shops such as Stockmann’s and Globus Gourmet (where there are never any traffic jams because the prices are so high - think cornflakes at £7 a packet (small packet!)), or Seven Continents, Ramstore or Azbuka Vkusa which are more reasonably priced but just too high for the bargain hungry Muscovite. So don’t worry, the chances of not finding your favourite foods are few and far between.
Market shopping can be a joy if your language skills are up to it. Just the experience of seeing all the different colours of the different fruits and veg is enough to make you dream of Caspian shores and tropical temperatures - especially when sold by a gold-toothed, laughing Azerbaijani. Don’t be too squeamish to buy meat there: the prices are much better than in the shops and I’ve never had a problem with Delhi belly, or Montezuma’s revenge.
Otherwise, it’s best to ask your driver to accompany you, if you have one, or else take it on the chin that they will probably ask you for a higher price once they know you are a foreigner. Don’t take it personally, it happens everywhere.
There is not that much that differs from a standard global citizen diet and you won’t need to learn to cook stuff in any special way, except perhaps if you adore barbecues and become hooked on ‘shashlyk’ grilled cubes of pork, beef, sturgeon or chicken on a skewer. All you need to do is learn how to marinate them properly.
Most of the upmarket stores take credit cards, while Auchan and Metro (for which you need a membership card) still require cash. But there are autobanks (cash machines) dotted around and you can always ask the cashier to wait while you get extra, although the people in the queue behind you might not appreciate it.
Service staff everywhere are learning to be much more pleasant to customers and it is only in the provinces or some backwater where you might get the rude treatment. Usually you are asked to come back soon and shop here again – shades of creeping capitalism.
There are a few foreign banks here – the President is not allowing them to come in en masse in case they dominate the Russian banking scene – Citibank (American) and Raiffaisen (Austrian) spring to mind. These can offer you a debit banking service as well as mortgages. Otherwise there are numerous Russian banks, but expats tend to stay away from them.
Most apartments have a phone. If they don’t, choose another apartment or ask the landlord to guarantee that he will get one. Don’t go for a shared service; it’ll just cause you headaches. This used to be more common in the old days, but not really any more. The Moscow Telephone system seems to be pretty good compared with some places I’ve lived. If you have a phone line, you can organize a dial-up internet service at home. Most areas are now wired for broadband and even wi-fi. There are several internet cafes if you can’t get online at home.
For international calls, it can be cheaper to use calling cards that you can buy at the numerous kiosks around town, or Skype via your home computer.
Mostly pay-as-you-go. This is easy to do; you just need to take along your passport and registration to complete the contract form. The ‘big 3’ phone companies are MTS, Beeline (Vimplecom) and Megafon.
On the other hand, if you have the invaluable assistance of a driver, ask him to take out a pay- as-you-go contract in his name, then it is a simple matter of simply giving him the money to top it up whenever you need to do so.
If you live in a rented apartment, your landlord would have to organize with Zhek, the state organization that is responsible for the maintenance of your apartment block, to come and do the repairs. Generally, they will come reasonably quickly and prices should not be sky high. Otherwise, if you want repairs that don’t have anything to do with the infrastructure of the apartment, eg, changing a light fitting or repairing a washing machine, try your landlord first, and if they are not amenable contact www.expat.ru or www.redtape.ru and ask for recommendations.
One of the wonderful things about Russian men is that the majority of them seem to have been born with a spanner or screwdriver in hand. They are very handy when it comes to small or even large repairs, and because of necessity in the past, have learnt to be extremely resourceful. If you have a driver, ask him first: either he might be able to do it or recommend someone who can.
Repairs are not as expensive as in the West, and workers are not as inventive or creative when it comes to calculating their bills. Enjoy it while it lasts! Of course if you live in a to of the tree penthouse, you can expect to pay top dollar.
And you probably will pay a premium for being an expat, but think about the 13% flat income tax rate – you shouldn’t be paying income tax in the UK as well, so that’s all you pay when you are resident here. When that happens, remind yourself that life is about swings and roundabouts.
Plumbing and water supplies
Yes, the plumbing is ancient and will continue to be so for a long time. So, if you go for a wonderfully romantic old apartment block, remember you will have wonderfully romantic plumbing as well, at least in the bits you can’t see, if your landlord has completely renovated your apartment (himself). But the Zhek guys who are dedicated to the maintenance of that building really know its intestines back to front and will be able to fix it.
One thing I must mention is the annual ‘hot water switch off’. Because the city’s plumbing infrastructure is so old, or so they tell us, it needs to be overhauled every year. So, district by district, starting in the middle of May up until end of August, the hot water supply is switched off for about two weeks. At a push, bathing in cold water is okay in July but not that much fun in May, so see that your apartment is fitted with a separate wall-mounted hot water heater. If it isn’t, ask your landlord to install one.
Having a separate hot water heater also means it can be used during the whole year, as the use of cold water heated up tends to soften the otherwise hard water that is heated centrally (so you’re less likely to complain about dry and itchy skin).
Unfortunately most apartments are still centrally heated without any controls on the radiators so you may find yourself opening the windows in -30’C blizzards just to cool down a bit.
It’s not advisable to drink tap water, unless you wish to filter it or boil it, but even then I wouldn’t be too keen. There are water supply companies who can deliver bulk amounts to your door, which will save you lugging it from the supermarket.
Most expats tend to find the cultural barrier hard going and form their own groups when it comes to baby groups. There might be the odd Russian who wants to join in so that their sprog can play in an English speaking environment, but this is likely to be few and far between. Both the British Women’s Club and the International Women’s Club can assist when it comes to putting you in touch with other mothers.
Nannies and domestic staff are best found by recommendation. There is a basic choice between choosing a Russian or Eastern European nanny, which is useful if you’d like her to do more like pay bills or speak with your child’s Russian teacher, or a Filipino nanny -increasingly popular (pro: they won’t tell you how to bring up your child; con: they don’t tend to be able to speak Russian). You’ll need to weigh up and pros and cons with what you need from a nanny and take it from there; recommendations from fellow expats will be abundant.
Traffic and drivers (yours)
Driving in Moscow is not for the fainthearted, especially if you are a woman and used to driving on the left hand side of the road. First of all you need to be able to read road signs in Cyrillic at speed, then you have to cope with the very macho driving habits of the drivers here, some of whom blatantly risk their own lives and the lives of everyone else on the road (the big, expensive cars seem to take priority over smaller, local made cars).
You will also need a notarized translation of your driving license or an international driving license as well as a document permitting you to drive the car if you are not the legal owner.
Accidents are legion. Imagine if someone bumps into you: you have to leave the car where it is, call the cops, and then negotiate in Russian with the other driver and cops. Even after six years here, I would not want to do it. Then you have to cope with the traffic jams which are getting more humungous all the time. Most executive positions come with a driver attached.
Finding a driver
If your company doesn't provide a driver and you have to find your own, the three best places to look for drivers, apart from word-of-mouth or through direct inheritance, are on www.expat.ru, www.redtape.ru . Many drivers and former employers place ads here.
How much one pays for a driver depends on where you live, whether you want the driver to use his own car or your car, and how often you want to use him (weekdays only or evenings and weekends as well) You might suggest a base salary and pay overtime for after hours work. Salaries start at about 25,000 roubles and can go up to almost double. It's always best to get references from an expatriate.
Make sure the driver is is healthy - we tried one out who couldn't swivel his neck to check if oncoming traffic was approaching!- and not an alcoholic (or recovering alcoholic) (obviously this might be a bit hard to know in the beginning, but be alert to the possible problem).
His car should be clean and roadworthy, and have seatbelts for all passengers. Discourage talking on mobile phones while driving and smoking in the car. Most Russian drivers like to take risks, so go for a drive with your prospective employee just to test how safely and comfortably he drives. Also find out how long he has been living and driving in Moscow as it is best that he knows the city and good shortcuts for when the traffic is heavy.
If you don't want a full time driver, it would be unusual for you to use a taxi company. A main reason for this is that you wouldn't want to have to deal with new, unknown drivers every time you use the taxi. It's best to be able to build up a reliable relationship with someone whom you can count on.
The Moscow City Government is piling on pressure to stop gypsy cabs and promote 'official' taxis. Taxi companies are proliferating like mushrooms in a damp forest, but try and find one that has operators who speak English. The gypsy cab system simply involves you standing on the side of the road and holding your arm out (not your thumb, as in the classic hitchhiking stance). The next car that passes who fancies giving you a lift will stop. Name your destination and ask how much before you agree and get in the car. Don't get in the car with driver and passenger and make sure you can open the door if you need to.
Of course, you are taking a risk by taking a gypsy cab, though I've heard of few problems encountered by expats. You need to be sensible. For instance, don't give them your exact address at destination, but somewhere nearby. The worst gypsy cabs are at the airports but airport administration is doing its best to discourage them by also featuring taxis from commercially-run operations.
Usually excellent in terms of availablity and price, you can take your pick of the trolleybuses, metro, taxis, and marshrutka (shuttle buses). msk.rusavtobus.ru/en will give you a breakdown of how to get from A to B using public transport if needed, and there are small public transport map books available to purchase in many kiosks, especially those in the metro underpasses.
World famous, with stunning historic architecture and museum-quality design in the stations; widely acknowledged to beat all other metro systems into a cocked hat, perhaps with the exception of Singapore. However, you will need to cope with crowds at rush hour (naturally) and you will need to have a reasonable grasp of Russian to find your way around. Trains arrive every two minutes so there is no waiting around. The metro is a great alternative to being stuck in traffic jams, though some reports I've read suggest that air quality is not too good and also that rolling stock is sorely in need of upgrading. When finding a place to live, make sure it is within ten minutes walk from a metro station.
As mentioned, the IWC, the BWC and the AWO (American Women's Organisation) as well as a host of other national clubs such as the French, German, Latin and Dutch clubs are all great places to meet other expat women. There are a number of sporting opportunities for men and women to get involved in as well as business associations such as Amcham and the British Business Club. Ads appear in the Moscow Times and Moscow News on a weekly basis asking for English speakers to join conversation clubs which are a great opportunity to meet Russians.
It really is worthwhile finding Russian friends as they are extremely generous and hospitable and seem to know just how to have fun, even with the most meager of resources. Just don’t discuss politics with them until you are sure where you stand with them or unless they initiate a discussion. They have their historical baggage which is difficult, if not impossible, for us to identify with.
You are likely to live in an apartment block with mostly Russian neighbours, unless you live in one of the gated communities. Don’t expect to find a house inside the Moscow metropolitan area. They are few and far between and apartment blocks are the order of the day.
There are a number of private clinics which profess to staff Western doctors, and they do, but not enough in my book. There is the European Medical Center, the American Medical Centre, US Dental Care and the International SOS Clinic (which is run by Europ Assistance clinic. See Medical/Dental services page on www.expat.ru). The latter advertise that they employ Western doctors, but in my experience, 90% of the doctors working in these clinics are Russian, though possibly trained in the West.
This is not to say that their expertise is below par; there is just something comforting about being able to talk to a doctor who you know understands what you mean and this is why most expats go to one of these three centers. However, it is perfectly acceptable that you go to Russian medical clinics – they range from the posh to the not so posh, but of course, you are then likely to encounter a professional who does not speak English. However, there have been several emergencies involving expats here and by all accounts, all have managed to obtain satisfactory treatment.
One thing to bear in mind is that if you are involved in an emergency, most of these private clinics will expect an upfront deposit of two to three thousand dollars which can be hard to find at 2am when you need it. Most expats have at least Emergency Medical Assistance if not Outpatient assistance covered by their medical insurance.
There are pharmacies on practically every block and the staff is usually happy (and qualified) to help and give advice on any specific problems or queries. Medications overall are cheaper here and many prescription-only drugs are available over-the-counter; you just need to ask (for example, ventolin and antibiotics).
Life in Moscow is a constantly changing surprise and never boring. The best thing about it for this writer is the feeling that things are growing, expanding and opening up. Unlike more settled, ‘mature’ countries, where change takes place only slowly, here things still visibly change from month to month. In a nutshell, Moscow is becoming more and more normal and is fast losing its Soviet past.
An exotic melting pot where East meets West, Moscow is an amazing city. It is such a privilege to live here, especially given the fact that it was closed to the ordinary person until very recently. Moscow has such a big history in both the cultural and political sense, and there is much for you to get your teeth stuck into… if you are interested in finding out more about the Russians who are so very much like we are, but then, just that bit different.