The personality of each human is formed by several little things. The events he’s surrounded by, the films he watches, the books he reads, the music he loves, the city he lives in – each of these make a mark, they make us the person that will wake up tomorrow. While preparing to move abroad we often understand that some significant changes in our lives and personalities are coming. This story is dedicated to my good friend Michael, an engineer from Munich who lived in Moscow for five years and returned to Germany a different man.
Michael came to Russia upon a job contract in 2010. Everything that he knew about Russia before signing this 6-month contract was that people drink a lot of vodka, there is a high concentration of oligarchs per square kilometer, and the phrase “Do Svidaniya”.
Michael’s mom was incredibly sad that he would be away for so long, but his father thought this travel idea was very interesting. At the farewell party, Michael’s friend said: “I’m absolutely sure you will return with a Russian wife named Olga!” Michael responded “Surely not, I’m only going there for half a year.” Nevertheless, Michael went on to spend 5 years in Moscow and returned home with a Russian wife and son.
Before he came, Michael was absolutely sure that everyone in Moscow speaks English (a fatal mistake), so he only started learning Russian the night before the flight. He started learning numbers first in hopes of using them to bargain with taxi drivers. This idea failed – for his first ride he was deceived by 500 rubles.
Taxi, taxi give me a ride
The taxi became a separate, bright episode in the acquaintance of the German engineer with Moscow. In Germany you can only call a taxi by phone. So it was rather uncomfortable and odd for Michael to stand near a road with and an outstretched arm to flag one down. He often compared himself to the statue of Yuri Dolgorukiy. Especially strange for him, was the way in which taxi drivers were stopping near the roadside with squeaking brakes fighting for the right to take him to where needed to go. Of course, Uber and Yandex weren’t on the scene yet. Taxis became quite popular for him. By the way, you can find the details about these and many other useful applications for living in Moscow here.
Michael talked to the taxi drivers a lot. Even without knowing the language, he could chat with a driver for half an hour, sharing the impressions of the city and listening to the advice of the aborigines.
Also, Michael was delighted with the public transportation, specifically the metro. The only numbers he had to remember were the opening and closing times. No schedules, no complex interweaving routes, the trains go every two minutes. The only mystery for him was and still is the functionality of the babushkas sitting in the in booths at the bottom of the escalators.
Meeting the Russian Medical System
Actually this story is worthy of a completely separate article, but I will tell it in a few words for now.
To get permission to work, Michael had to acquire papers that confirmed he didn’t have syphilis, tuberculosis, or AIDS. To get it, he had to travel to Kaluga, where the main office of his company was located. Despite needing only one analysis to satisfy all three papers (blood from vein), he had to do it three times in three different clinics.
“Women in toques” helped Michael do fluorography and the equipment seemed so old and loud that it “could cause cancer”.
Caution: Heat Inside!
The first real shock for Michael was the climatic contrast—but not between Munich and Moscow. As you well know, when in Moscow it is -20 degrees outside, the thermometer inside will read about +30 degrees. Michael, in his underwear and in a panic searched for a climate control panel and when he failed, he tried to reach a landlord to ask WTF? In Germany, if it’s cold outside, it’s cold inside as well – electricity is very expensive. When Michael realized that heat in the apartment is normal for Russia he relaxed and began taking advantage of this luxurious side of Soviet life.
For the first couple of weeks, Michael was living and working in the suburbs. At that time, he was sure that Moscow has no soul: similar grey buildings, bad roads, snow and mud everywhere. After moving to the center of Moscow and seeing the city inside the Garden Ring, Michael fell in love—finally and irrevocably.
The next 6 months were full of hard parties. The German engineer felt dizzy from the night life of Russia’s capital. He went out three or four times a week, and every other time he discovered a new night club or bar. The biggest city in his life before Moscow was Munich and even it was not close to this amount of places to every taste.
One time, Michael had a party with the Russian singer Nusha, and he didn’t even know that she’s a celebrity. He said it was a blast. Another time, he drank with James Blunt before his performance in Moscow. The guys from the band took him to their concert with a VIP-pass. By the way, it was the process of Moscow’s night life discovery which taught Michael how to bargain with taxi drivers.
Of Women and Other People
Even with a few negative moments in Moscow, like cashiers that never smile and ruthless bureaucracy, Michael had a very positive overall impression from the city. First of all, because of the people of course. Michael said that the best description of Muscovites he could think of was: “soulful”.
Luckily he quickly learned that in Russia, friendship starts with a 40 vol.
How warm are his memories of his Russian ex-colleagues! He says it was the best team in his life.
Working processes were always light and fun. Unlike the Germans, they were not fixated on the speedy completion of their objectives, but at the same time they were similarly effective. A cool mix of Russian soul and German productivity!
Michael found the outfit of Moscow women to be especially contrasting in comparison to Germany. They go to work, studies or even shopping on high heels, with makeup and beautifully coiffed hair. You won’t see it in Europe.
When Michael learned Russian, he still had one unsolved problem in communication: all our proverbs, sayings, euphemisms… He had a cognitive dissonance the first time he heard “business kielbasa”. He said he couldn’t sleep for the whole night trying to understand this expression.
While living in Moscow, Michael has visited many other Russian cities. However, the brightest parts of it were not the sights but the compartments in Russian trains. Michael always met interesting people, who were open to a dialogue. It was an awesome, unlike-anything-else form of entertainment.
Surprise! Life is Wonderful Day and Night
Amazing and surprising for Michael was the fact that he didn’t have to hurry anywhere after work if he was hungry. Depending on the region in Germany, the shops might close at 6 or 8 pm. And on Sundays nothing but the petrol stations are open. So in Moscow, Michael enjoyed the possibility of buying anything he may need at any time on any day.
He also visited many museums in Moscow, and he did it with a great pleasure. Just like in the case with bars, the amount and variety was amazing to him. The only thing he couldn’t understand was why in the majority of museums the prices for foreigners are more expensive. His colleagues always told him: “Keep silent or you will pay more.”
On every corner in Germany you can find a sign that forbids something. Needless to say, the absence of strict rules was a breath of fresh air for used-to-a-tight-rein Michael.
After the first 6 month in Moscow, Michael met the woman of his dreams. However, her name was not Olga but rather Ilina (it would have been a funny story). The dream lady and also the constantly growing love for Russia’s capital made Michael prolong his first contract and stay in Moscow for a long five years. For that time, he and Ilina managed to get married, have a child and witness a crisis in the Russian economy—which ultimately became a reason of Michael’s return to his homeland.
Moscow will always be in the heart of the engineer from Munich. This city played a major role in the forming of his personality. Michael became more open to people, much more talkative, and learned how to break rules when it’s more adequate than to follow them. He learned that there is a small break between the first and second shots and for his main lesson: different is not good or bad, different is an alternative way of being.