As my friends, fans, and family know, I like jobs I can do in my pajamas and one thing I do for the occasional crust is brief expats who are setting off to Moscow for work. I have a very serious and thorough outline and I do a nice job if I do say so myself. There are, however, a few points I tend to leave out of a general briefing. In this series of posts, I’ll be grouping these important concepts about expat life into alphabetical clusters with some helpful links to other resources. I encourage you to submit your own questions about expat life in Moscow!
It’s all about the money. That’s why you are here after all, and don’t let on that this isn’t a hardship post. Of course it is: peanut butter costs 9 bucks a jar and there is a 5-month lag to watch Celebrity Apprentice. But the “The Package” as expats refer to it includes all kinds of perks: an all expense-paid look-see visit before you move, and all-expense paid move when you do featuring a sea container big enough to fit a year’s worth of Sam’s Club Mac&Cheese boxes, housing, insurance, insurance that ensures your insurance, pet relocation, assimilation training for you and your pet, schooling, trips home (to stock up on more Sam’s Club Mac &Cheese), a guaranteed bonus.
Location, location, location. Are you poshly situated on the banks of Patriarch Ponds (soon to be renamed Cadaver Pond) or have you chosen the more hygienic confines of Rosinka or Pokrovsky Hills, where your neighbors are People Like You and not slightly crazy octogenarians in worn out tapki who hurl insults at you, or a scary beezinessmeyn from Moldova and his 17-year twin girlfriends. Are you horrified by the cost of your rental? Do you know the layout of IKEA by heart? You are outraged when the rent goes up, and you know you are really entrenched when you stop thinking you can get one up on the landlord. You can’t.
Suddenly, you are the hero of your own Masterpiece Theatre special. There are servants everywhere! Someone drives you around, someone else drives your spouse around, and a third guy may even drive your kids around. A colorful but increasingly tedious woman cleans your home, sighing heavily about the good old days when she worked for a Soviet Research Institute and had a three-week voucher to a sanatorium each summer. She often suffers from a curious thing called “pressure” from the “magnetic field.” You are working up the courage to fire her and get a string of Filipinos in to replace her.
Keeping your children busy, productive, occupied, and off the streets is a full time job for an expat. If you have school aged children, you’ve probably gone for the “All Inclusive” option of an international school with bonus points if you’ve chosen to live adjacent to it. Good choice: everything including your own social life is under one roof. You will never be lonely again. Unless of course, your child is unhappy at the international school, in which case, you are out of luck. If you have teenagers, I strongly advocate a lengthy and serious consideration of "American Boarding Schools" or a similar publication from your home country.
If this is your first posting abroad, you may be disconcerted by the amount of security measures in place: metal detectors to enter shopping malls, armed guards at your local supermarket, and the bewildering rigmarole of getting a “propusk” or pass to any building in the city. Relax. Remember Russia is a human resources rich country and the entire male population serves in the army, making them fit for only one thing when they get out: security services.
Moscow expats like their tipple. Whether it’s cocktails on the patio at Scandinavia or vodka at the banya, gird your liver for the onslaught of alcohol to come. Quantity, not quality, is what counts in Moscow, where a mediocre bottle Cru d’Ordinary Cheap and Cheerful Australian Chardonnay retailing in your home country for $7.99 and available at every newsagent, needs to be specially ordered and costs up to $60.00. None of this deters Moscow expats, some of whom even take a liking to the aluminum tins of pre-mixed Gin Tonic sold at kiosks throughout the city. Don’t knock them ‘til you’ve tried them, and try them as the locals do: while riding public transportation.
Relax. All those ambulances are just moonlighting as traffic jam plows, and all those blue lights are just show-off minigarchs. No emergency.
Where oh where do you buy peanut butter? (Azbukha Vkusa) Or toilet bowl cleaner? (Metro) Can you get Vanilla Extract in Moscow? (No) Is there any store that sells three holes US Letter Sized paper?(huh?) Where do you buy a bathing suit or clothes that are in the size 12 and up range (www.landsend.com of course…what did you think?) Finding things in Moscow is a full-time job for a trailing spouse, or what a recent Expat Forum more charmingly renamed the “lovepats.” Keep your ear to the ground; post your questions on Facebook. Be ready to improvise. Take many many many empty suitcases home on holiday.
A big part of being an expat is the social life. This is primarily carried out with other expats at large events held to raise money for various good causes. This is when “The Package” begins to make sense. You are charged an arm and a leg to attend, then shell out the other arm and your other leg to purchase way too many raffle tickets for chance to win something you neither want, nor need (such as a weekend at the Marriott Grand Hotel on Tverskaya Street). Hours of fun. You may choose to join a book club, or go native and visit a dacha. Whatever you do, get out there and meet people. Even if you have to help unpack 14,000 Russian Christmas tree ornaments, or go to divine service. Otherwise, the cleaning lady will drive you nuts.
Ah…vacations! Before you even unpack one suitcase, check with the HR people who are in charge of you about all the public holidays in Russia. You don’t want to be caught wondering where everyone is during the first week in May, November, or January. Nor do you want to miss the Saturday that turns out to be a working day. Once you’ve got that clear, you have a wonderful opportunity to discover the joys of package holidaying a la Russe in Turkey, Egypt, and the UAE for the low, low price of less than $500 p/p and the high, high cost of mental anguish when you take your first (and last) charter flight to the sunny destination. Live and learn, friends, live and learn.
No "Life in Moscow" piece could be complete without this "S" word. Suffice it to say that attitudes about sex are different abroad, particularly those held by the typing pool at the better firms. And then there are the rumors of trampoline sex in the gated communities...true or false? Hmmm...
Hi There Readers!
Can you think of other "S" words that are important to life in the expat lane? Questions about life in Russia? Curious or outraged by what you read here? Hit the comment button and weigh in, won't you?