When I first mentioned to my family and friends that I was considering moving to Moscow I received a lot of ‘Oh wow, well, you’re brave,’ comments and the occasional ‘Are you sure that’s the best idea?’ remarks. I never considered that what was I was doing was rather unconventional and uncommon. During the beginning stages of my TEFL course, we were made to sit in a circle and tell the course leader our names and how we were planning on using our TEFL certificate (the usual ice breaker stuff). There were many people wanted to live in Italy, Spain and the South of France to teach part time and mostly enjoy the culture they were to surround themselves in. There were the occasional gap year types who wanted to use their certificate to teach in schools in Kenya and Ethiopia, and then there were the ones who didn’t really know what route they wanted to take, just that they wanted a change from their dull office job they had been in for twenty years. I, however was the only person who wanted to go to Russia and become a Governess. I’d been offered jobs in Seoul and Japan, but for some unknown reason my heart was set on Russia, and I’d be damned if anyone was going to make me change my mind. I knew very little about Moscow, other than what I had read in Russian literature and that the Bolshoi Ballet company, in my opinion were one of the best in the world. Little did I know that I would encounter reversing in taxis down busy motorways and a ridiculous amount of dill, (I mean an unnatural amount!) So, I’m going to try, and I mean try (not expertly advise) to help you survive your first few weeks in Moscow as a Governess.
I was picked up from the airport all those years ago, by my boss’s driver. He stood there clad in his black suit, with a gun bolstered at the hip, unsmiling, holding a sign with my name on it. ‘Unsmiling’ being the operative word here. Don’t get me wrong there is some smiling in Moscow, but not the English ‘have a nice day’ when handing back your change in a shop smile. This I realised at a later date was a rarity in Moscow. For the British in these situations we try overcompensate and smile more to encourage some sort of a response, (picture my grin at this Russian driver, needless to say nothing altered his deadpan.) This however was nothing in comparison to the James Bond opening of Quantum of Solace style car chase that this deadpan driver took. Like any regular person I put on my seat belt as soon as I sat down in the plush car (Bentley, I think) to which the driver laughed at me. Outright laughed at my wanting to be safe. Turns out that the lack of seat belts and super speedy driving weren’t the only car related issues I would encounter. I can safely say, I have reversed down a busy motorway during rush hour because my taxi driver took the wrong turning. Can you imagine that on the M25 on a Friday evening?? I didn’t think so. Eventually you become immune to the crazy high speed driving, you forget the whiteness of your knuckles as you cling to the glove compartment. You begin to realise that it is normal for a car to cut in over six lanes of traffic on the busiest stretch whilst the driver is speaking on the telephone (not on hands free I might add!) It almost becomes a part of reality. It wasn’t until my Mum visited Moscow for the first time quite recently that I realised that this wasn’t the norm. I’ll never forget her ghost white face as we had three very near misses in the space of three minutes.
It’s not the crazy driving that is the most difficult part of living in Moscow. It has to be how scary the language barrier is when you first arrive. I came to Moscow having learnt the usual basic words, hello, thank you and goodbye. I wasn’t truly prepared for how difficult it would be. Every sign is written in what looks like the language of Mars, every metro exit looks identical. Fortunately they have recently installed some English signs on the metro, which makes life much easier. All I can say is that you will eventually learn. A lot of which you will pick up from the families or children you will teach. The rest will be from learning on the job (and you will become an expert at this). It is absolutely the most rewarding thing you can do, when you finally begin to understand some of the words your crazy, speeding taxi driver is saying to you. I remember my second week of working in Moscow, on my day off, being sat in a cafe near to Red Square, (the only place where I had accurately memorized the directions to.) There were a group of girls all speaking English on a table next to me, and I had never been so excited to hear my own language. After about thirty minutes I finally gathered the courage to approach their table. I was just so thrilled to be speaking some English I barely remember the encounter. These are the things Governesses live for. The ability to meet with friends on their days off and chat in English incessantly for hours on end. These girls will become your life, and believe me they are all amazing. The stories they have from traveling and working all over the world and the experience that comes with that is incredible. I have a wonderful friend who has worked everywhere, from Korea, to Oman, Germany to Cairo, she has had such an interesting life and her stories entertain us all at our coffee meetings, she was introduced to me through a mutual friend, and we’ve been great friends ever since. My advice is to join every expat forum you can, every Facebook governess network. All you need is to meet one person, and that person will introduce you to her friends and so forth. Believe me this will change everything. I know it sounds basic but it’s amazing how many people come to Moscow and rarely meet a single soul. Due to work commitments I was one of those people, until my schedule changed, along with my view of Moscow.
There are numerous issues that you have to contend with whilst living in Moscow. These you just have to deal with, one of those issues is the traffic. My god! I’ve been sat in a taxi and only moved an inch in an hour. There are really too many cars for Moscow, poor Moscow, it can’t cope. Unless you love sitting in traffic jams, where cars are trying to overtake each other to get a milimetre further in front of you, take the metro. The metro is brilliant, it’s super efficient and easy (once you get the hang of it). It’s cheap, I mean, 58 pence per ride (ish, depending on current exchange rates) and the stations are beautiful, definitely beats the London tube in my opinion. Another potential issue depending on your personal tastes, is the food. If you are working as a live-in Governess, don’t feel pressured to eat the food if you are not a fan. Speak to the mum she will definitely find something more to your liking. Although they serve the children, boiled meat and dill covered cutlets, this doesn’t mean you have to eat it too. I struggled my way through one bowl of Borsch before I had to speak to the mum and explain that my western taste buds weren’t quite used to this much cabbage and beetroot, all topped nicely with a kilogram of dill. Since then I haven’t had a problem. It was well worth the awkward minute of explaining that this wasn’t what I was used to. Don’t be too nervous, after all they want you to be happy and settled, as they know you’ll do a better job.
One thing to bear in mind when visiting supermarkets and cafes, is that service isn’t quite what it is in England and America. Don’t take it personally if you don’t receive eye contact or a smile when you leave. It isn’t that the Russians are rude, believe me, I’ve met plenty of wonderful, kind Russian people, it’s just it isn’t the same culture here. Try not to be offended when receiving your change back, or when you don’t hear a please or thank you from anyone other than yourself. You just have to take it for what it is. Many people have the wrong idea about Russia, and yes, sometimes it can feel like us expats come from another planet. But there are so many exciting things to embrace here, after all, aren’t most of us here to witness a different culture? Although there are issues that are difficult to contend with, you also get to experience crazy and exciting weather, an abundance of culture, and architecture to die for. My advice is to make sure you remember these things. It’s easy to focus on what makes your life difficult out here, but it would be the same were you living in any other foreign country, even living on a beach in the Caribbean would become difficult eventually. Embrace the Russian culture and customs for what they are, because it will be the best learning experience you will ever have and I truly believe if you can survive a Russian winter, you can survive anything. Remember this, when that black suited, unsmiling driver picks you up from the airport!