I’ve been doing travel tips for visitors to Russia with students in my course for 2 years, and it was just last week that I felt satisfied with how it went. As my annoying habit goes, I feel like analysing why. There is, I suppose, a mix of external factors, my general easy-going happy feeling these days, and attitude to class this term.
Anyway, the “analysis” comes at the end of the post. Enjoy the The Guide now, written by my students. Or, rather, the guideS, as you should probably know that Moscow is not what Russia is. So we had two groups of students writing up lists of tips either about their native Moscow, or notes based on their knowledge of life in their native small towns of Russia (or cities other than Moscow).
Photo of my student’s paper, with reference to Dr. Strangelove
Subway is better than trams, buses, etc. but it is most crowded. Don’t use private taxis! Be careful while crossing the road, drivers are not very polite (if we compare us with Europe). Use bicycles, many bike lanes are made now. There are usually a lot of traffic jams. Some buses which have an index number may have shortened their route, so be careful. In the centre of a platform of metro stations there’s a red and blue post marked INFO with a metro map on it.
You should stand up if you see a pensioner standing and looking where to sit. People seem to be very unfriendly and angry because they do not smile, but our people are actually very hospitable and outgoing if you need help or advice. Russians become very very friendly after some minutes of conversation. Be ready to understand irony and sarcasm. Giving gifts and presents is traditional, it means that people show their emotions. Talk about the beauty of Russia if you want to break the ice in conversation. Russians like to complain and to criticize something (but not themselves).
Russian art, literature and classical music are nice to be talked about.
You can find food of any cuisine in Moscow. Be sure to try the taste of Russian honey and caviar. Russian people like to eat soup. Don’t drink water from the tap. It should be boiled before drinking.
What to visit?
Visit Vorobyevy Gory (and make a choice what to visit looking at the city from the observation deck on the hill). Don’t visit the outskirts. 1/3 of the city is green – go to the parks!
Language and communication
If you speak English (slowly) people will understand. Learn Cyrillic alphabet before you come.
Schedule and times
There is no fixed timetable in the underground but in the rush hour trains come every 50 seconds. You cannot buy alcohol after 10 pm.
Have passport with you (in the city)!!! You need to ‘register’ in Moscow! Police are allowed to stop anyone in the street and ask for documents. There are a lot of different nationalities, you shall be acquainted with these cultures.
Prices are high. There are a lot of malls. Check the receipt and change on the spot.
High prices. Be careful if you live near a football stadium, it might be dangerous in time of a match. Our electricity standard is 220V, 50Hz.
Avoid stray dogs!!! People don’t clean after their dogs – be careful!
Don’t wear very expensive shoes in the winter (chemicals in the streets). Weather is totally unpredictable. Summer in Moscow is very stuffy.
Do not drink alcohol or smoke in the streets, it is illegal. There’s free wifi in most cafes in Moscow.
Have a pleasant stay in Moscow!
Out of Moscow (in a small town of Russia)
Try to communicate with people using simple and basic phrases because people in small towns don’t know English well. Talk to young people. Try to learn and understand Russian phrases and greetings (da, nyet, dobri vecher, privet). You can have an eye contact in conversation but remember: touch contact is preferable only with close friends in an informal atmosphere.
You should avoid shopping in underground crossings, there are poor quality goods there. You should look at the date of manufacture of a product.
Food and drinks
You can knock spoon when you mix sugar (in your cup). Stick to restaurants or cafes that you know (for example, McDonalds or KFC). You should try specific dairy products, like kefir or ryazhenka. There’s a stereotype about Russian love for vodka. Many people in Russia can’t stand it. Drinking age is 18 y.o. for beer and 21 y.o. for spirits.
Be prepared to extremely noisy subway, buses and trolley-buses. In many Russian towns you have to pay fare to a bus driver. Try to stay close to the bus doors at rush hours. Otherwise, you should push your way to the exit.
Technology and communication
Some Russians like to show off their gadgets. Russians have many outdated things. Many Russians use headphones or earphones. In most towns you have access to 3G Internet.
Keep in mind that Russians are people of extremities. Russians are straight-forward, direct and speak openly. So they like to comment on what they see and discuss people’s behaviour. Some Russians like to teach you what you must do and how you should live. Tolerance… almost no tolerance. Everything looks better outside than inside. Hot discussions are a normal thing. Dark tones prevail in clothing. Avoid contact with people wearing sport suits. You can see wild animals in towns (for example, bears and wolves in Nizhnevartovsk).
Police in Russia aren’t police in your country. Avoid contact with them. If you lose your gadget, put up with it. You will never find it. It’s better to have an insurance. There might be no toilet paper in public toilets.
One big reason for me thinking it’s gone better this time than at previous times is the introduction of categories, for which I thank this post. We’d read and discussed these tips written by Korean students first, and I believe the style they are presented in, as well as the type of information, got their reflection in what my students came up with. Another thing is stereotypes. Every year I have to remind students to keep away from promoting a bear, matreshka, vodka, valenki and ushanka kind of image. This culture trolling is ultimately their first choice, always. Somehow this year we managed to mostly avoid it, well at least in writing and the follow-up discussion. Of course, the jokes in the process of working on the tips were in abundance.
Talking about culture you live in and being neutral about it is very difficult. Still, I think maybe this year the overall picture is more realistic and complete than before. Also, it’s always been a flawed idea from me to ask them write only 10 tips. This is, on reflection, my final big reason.
*** A personal note on a small town in Russia ***
Yesterday I went to Ryazan, a small town with a very long rich history 200km from Moscow. I spent half the day walking around seeing the sights and also paying attention to every little detail around me (about place and people). My guide was a most kind, open and naive girl I’ve seen in a long time, or ever, here. Or it’s just as likely that I never gave it a thought or a close look. I might write more about the day some time later because it was a whirlwind of emotions and a week’s worth of impressions (although I believe a lot and quite enough has already been written about the dramatic disparity I’m just now redefining for myself). I’ve seen Russia and I’ve talked to a Russian. It’s all very vague for me now, but in a very simplified version my personal note is about being impressed and uplifted. And I’ve been impressed enough to get back to the roots and pick a collection of Yesenin’s poems as my reading choice, for today or more.
Feel free to use these tips in your class or life, and have a pleasant stay in Russia.
P.S. And just if you think you have some information to add, whatever it is, or you want to contradict, or argue, please do so in a comment. I’d be very happy to see this as start of such a discussion. Thank you.