Moscow is a city of contrasts. There is evidence of outstanding wealth and extreme poverty, freezing winter weather and baking hot summers, as well as frigid indifference and overwhelming hospitality. For the average Moscow resident, their feelings about this city are as diverse as any aspect of life here. One thing is for sure, though. After living in the capital of the largest country on Earth, your life will never be the same again.
So what is living in Moscow really like? When you first arrive, it seems just like any other busy city. People rushing from place to place, busy traffic and ample nightlife, shops and small eateries. Yes, the writing looks a bit strange and the supermarket workers are rather grumpy, but it’s not so bad. It’s not until you have lived here for a while that the true Russian reality starts to set in.
One of the first places that you notice the cultural differences is on the metro. The stations are all different and, therefore, easy to identify on sight. The names are long and impossible to pronounce without having a couple of shots of vodka first. In winter, everybody is dressed in blacks and browns with the occasional brave soul wearing a splash of colour. In summer, this turns into a kaleidoscopic array of hues and patterns, ranging from bright to fluorescent. The women are dressed to impress, whether they are on their way to work in a high profile company or just popping to the supermarket for a carton of milk. Smiling at strangers will earn you a scowl, although you may find this indistinguishable from their normal look.
Many expats quickly get caught up in the multitude of recreational options available in Moscow. The theatres are plentiful and the prices range from inexpensive to extortionate. A trip to the Bolshoi is a must and constitutes a real Russian experience, but saving up for several months to buy a ticket should be expected. Internationally famous plays and musicals are also frequent and a trip to Russia is not complete without visiting the circus at least once. For those who prefer their entertainment to be in English rather than in Russian, there are several cinemas dotted around the city which show films in the original language.
At night, the centre is teeming with revellers and partygoers, so anyone interested in bars and clubs can always find somewhere to go. For a more sedate outing, there is a wealth of museums and art galleries for every taste and interest. However, be warned. The ticket prices for entry to most museums work on a tiered system, with Russian citizens paying regular prices and foreigners paying up to two times the regular price. It is possible to get away with paying the Russian price by grunting and handing over the correct money, so as long as they don’t check your passport, you should be alright.
For the more adventurous person, there are plenty of places to visit in the vicinity of Moscow. The elektrichka (suburban train) is cheap, cheerful and goes in all directions. Many of the famous Golden Ring cities are accessible by elektrichka and are doable in a day trip. Further away requires a trip on a train, which is a cultural experience in itself. Trains consist of expensive first class berths, four person compartments and open carriages. While the more expensive options may seem safer, the platskart (third class) experience is much more authentic. Make sure you have enough instant noodles and alcohol to go around, as sharing is expected, and try to avoid the inevitable awkward conversation with a nosey babushka.
Contrary to popular belief, the weather in Moscow is relatively mild. Summers are hot and sunny, whereas the winter is cold and wet. When people think about Russian winters, it brings forth images of troikas being pulled across snowy landscapes, -40ºC wind chills and people huddled together in their fur coats and Astrakhan hats. In reality, the winter weather consists of a three stage cycle. First, there is snow, which blankets the landscape in a gentle fuzz and serves to conceal even the most hideous of blemishes. Shabby suburbs become a winter wonderland. However, within a few days or, if you are lucky, weeks, the temperature rises by a few degrees and the pristine snow turns into brown slush. Poor drainage leaves huge pools of ice-cold sludge, making crossing the road somewhat difficult. Within days, the temperature has fallen again and the slush freezes into treacherous fields of ice. Keeping a bag of peas in your freezer to deal with assorted winter sprains is a must. Before long, the snow is falling and the cycle begins again.
Finally, the food situation. While many Western products are still widely available, despite recent political tensions, you still have to shop around. Although some supermarkets have a more varied selection than others, you will still inevitably end up with typical Russian, Caucasian and Uzbek cuisine as your staples. Food in Russia tends to be quite heavy and bland, with lots of meats, soups and dough, all of which are ideally suited to cold weather. Lighter Georgian dishes, which are particularly popular in Moscow in the form of restaurants and street food, have infinitely more taste and are just as wholesome. In addition, there is a plethora of American diners, sushi bars and Indian restaurants that will suit any palate.
Despite the ups and downs of life here in Moscow, there is one thing that is undeniable. Like anywhere, it's not perfect, but it has a unique spirit that ensnares its visitors and alters the way you look at life. For a country that, on the surface, may seem cold and forbidding, your welcome will be surprisingly warm and, like many people, you will never want to leave.