When I arrived in Moscow I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t well prepared. I knew life would be hard, but I couldn’t have predicted how hard it would be. In many ways it feels like I don’t have any spare time anymore. That’s not entirely true – but the time I can spend on activities like writing has been dramatically decreased.
Fortunately, I have some time between the now and again. Yesterday I was at the Danilovskij market with an Italian friend. It was a very interesting experience. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to buy that much, but I bought mandarins and strawberries.
The Danilovsky market in Moscow.
In the last couple of weeks I have struggled with sleep problems, which I happily managed to find a more or less permanent solution to.
I will be able to get through it, and in many ways it seems that life as a Russian student fosters discipline. At the same time, I don’t know how healthy it is to have very little free time. I don’t envy the Russian student life over time. Especially considering that many students work as well, something they need to do in order to be able to afford to study.
The Danilovsky market in Moscow
The latter situation is unfortunately becoming more and more common in Norway as well, and I sincerely hope that the government can eventually provide the students with much needed resources so that they can focus on studying rather than working. What is the point of being able to live if you don’t have the time or energy to get good grades?
It isn’t easy to hide the fact that Russians have a reputation for being … thirsty. Of course, here, like in other countries, there are people who do not drink or drink very little.
But when I visited Russia for the first time in 2014, Vladimir Putin had changed the period during which shops could sell alcohol. From being able to sell twenty-four hours a day they could only sell until eleven o’clock in the evening. A rather harsh restriction, but seen through the eyes of a Norwegian, it is still quite astonishing to be able to buy alcohol until bedtime for most people going to work, school or university the following day.
As if this wasn’t enough: having been in Moscow for almost a month, I have noticed that they sell beer everywhere. Not spirits but beer. Beer is sold at Burger King, at Subway, and, along with Kvass, at a lot of coffee and brunch places and patisseries. Beer is sold at the cinema, and any restaurant with respect for itself has at least a selection of five to ten varieties, not including spirits and drinks.
Most people who know me know that I have a liberal relationship with alcohol and am very fond of beer. That’s why it’s really absurd that I’m sitting here and ranting about too easy access to beer. Still, I don’t understand the Russian alcohol culture.
As a Norwegian, it’s hard for me to understand the need to order beer with coffee in the morning on your way to work, or with or without family at Burgerking (if you want to eat and drink alone, can’t you order your burger at Burgerking and bring the beer from the supermarket across the street into the park?)
And what’s the point of going to the movies if you’re going to drink anyway and don’t want to pay attention? Believe me – beer and cinema do not belong together. A good friend of mine was once going to review a movie right after drinking an unknown number of beers out on the town – it didn’t work out well.
It can’t possibly be the availability that’s at fault. There is no supermarket in Moscow without a rich offer of alcoholic products – so it would be logical to assume that there’s something cultural going on.
Yes, and did I mention that you can also have a beer at the MGIMO canteen? I’m going to sound like a reactionary Christian conservative American now, I know, but: what on earth is it that makes the Russians believe that alcohol is a smart idea to serve to beer-thirsty students in the middle of a busy college?
Is there some kind of reverse perverse logic behind it, or is it an unspoken social code that if you order beer in the canteen outside of special occasions, everyone will give you the stink eye?
The day before yesterday I bought a frying pan at one of the shops just off the local subway station, Yugo Zapadnaya (South West). It marked an informal start to my new life down here. I have had to rebuild my life, you see. From scratch.
I’m afraid I will be another person when I return to Norway. Just yesterday I was thinking I was going to miss life here terribly when I return. That’s why it’s important to try to make my life as similar to Norway as possible.
Up until yesterday I had almost eaten out every day here (except last Sunday, when I borrowed a frying pan that happened to be in the kitchen). It’s quite possible on a Norwegian budget, but it isn’t healthy, in the long run.
Me, in front of a giant statue of Peter I
Apropos health: Today was the first day I worked out here. I haven’t done it in about two and a half months and it felt incredibly wonderful.
Last week was the first week of studies. On Monday I had only one lecture, but on Tuesday and Wednesday I had lectures until 20 and 21. On Thursday I had lectures until 13:30.
I’m not used to having lectures run into the evening, but because I live right at the campus, it means that at least I don’t have to move much after the lectures. It helps.
In addition, lectures in the evening are only about the Russian language and I love having five lectures with it per week. Now we seem to have even more so that we get 18 ECTS in total for Russian only. It’s amazing, as it means I don’t have to take so many of the other subjects.
Right now, life in Moscow feels a bit like a mix of vacation and university. It’s a good feeling.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has a joke he likes to tell;
A man arrives at Lubyanka (KGB headquarters) saying: – I’m a spy, I want to surrender.
He is asked: – Who’s do you work for?
He answers: – I’m an American spy. – Well, then you have to go to room number 5.
He goes to room number 5: – I’m an American spy, I wish to surrender .. – Do you have weapons? – Yes. – Please go to room number 7.
He goes to room number 7: – I’m a spy, I want to surrender and have weapons. – Please go to room number 10.
He goes to room number 10: – I’m a spy, I have weapons, and I want to surrender. – Do you have communication equipment? – Yes. – Please go to room 20.
He goes to room 20: – I’m a spy, I have weapons and communication equipment, and want to surrender.
He is asked: – Do you have a mission? – Yes. – Well, go and do it. Stop disturbing people when they’re trying to work!
This is obviously an old joke from the Soviet era, but it goes right to the heart of Russia’s bureaucracy . A bureaucracy that is still very healthy and strong.
When I shared this joke with the exchange students who are here with me at MGIMO, many responded instinctively: “This is MGIMO’s international office,” they said.
Being an exchange student – or “international student”, as it is called here – at MGIMO isn’t easy. The first thing you have to do is deliver your passport to an office for them to copy. Then you must bring your passport, health insurance, negative HIV test and vaccination card to MGIMO’s International Office, where all documents are copied.
Moscow by night
Once this is done, you’re handed a contract with about ten pages that you have to sign, sign and sign again. All this takes about twenty minutes. When you come back after a day, you get a bill that you have to bring to another office to pay for your accomodation. Also, do not forget to go through a fourth office to take a photo. Images must be taken to the international office anyway, but the picture to be used on MGIMO’s access card must of course be taken by MGIMO!
Apropos admission cards: Oh my God, how wonderful it will be to receive admission cards! Both the dorms and the university have their own security guards who have nothing to do but check the identity of those who go in and out through the barrier at the entrance. At the entrance to the dormitory, it is sufficient to show an admission card issued on arrival. At the university, on the other hand, one has to show his or her passport. And it must be checked – manually – against a list. If more than three students are going through at the same time-well, you can imagine.
Back to the dorms: they’re … OK. The rooms are in a building that is obviously a survivalist from the Soviet era. But it has been refurbished inside. There are rumors on campus that these dorms are the best throughout Russia. I do not quite know what to say – at least they are minimalist. Each room is approx. 15 square meters, including the bathroom. It contains two beds – fortunately, I still live alone – cupboards, and shelves. The bathroom has a toilet and a bathtub, and that’s it. Wifi isn’t available, but fortunately I have access to Moscow’s public internet from my room.
Me, in front of a building which housed Lenin and his secretary during the soviet times.
The dorms are five minutes walk from MGIMO. It would have been nice, but MGIMO isn’t exactly centrally located. It takes five minutes by bus and twenty minutes by metro to get to the city center. Fortunately, there are several shopping malls around the local metro station, Юго-Западная (literally: Southwest), so you can get most of what you need without having to go all the way to the city center.
Nevertheless, the distance to the center means that one way or another you always have to use Russian somewhere on your way back or forth. And for someone who loves this difficult, strange, but beautiful language, the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy, which many English speakers regard as “butch,” and the Russians themselves merely refer to as “очень сложный,” very complicated, that isn’t exactly a disadvantage.
“I’m good at recognizing faces.”
The tall, chubby man in a dark suit outside Museo Naval del Peru looked at me, wondering whether or not I’d been there the day before?
“I have,” I said.
“Where are you going,” he said, smiling.
“I’m heading in that direction, follow me!”
He was accompanied by a young woman in a uniform, and I quickly realized this was not a man accustomed to being told “no, thank you.”
“Are you the director of the museum,” I asked. He gave me a nod.
“I’m a retired admiral in the navy,” he explained.
When we’d entered his car, he asked me where I was from. “Norway,” I answered truthfully, and explained that I’d gone to the museum looking for information about Kon Tiki and/or balsa wood rafts.
“Thor Heyerdahl’s son, Thor Jr, attended a dinner party at my house. During the dinner I got a phone call from the navy telling me I’d been promoted to admiral. I turned white as a ghost. It turned out that Thor Jr had been involved. He’s very adept at convincing people!”
At this point I was already star struck, but managed to keep my calm.
“You’re coming home with me to take a picture. You’ll send it to Olav Heyerdahl, Thor’s grandson. You know, Olav planned the Tangaroa-expedition in my home. The Kon Tiki II expedition was also planned in my home.”
Me, in admiral Yabar’s house
“That’s awesome,” I admitted. The truth, of course, was I couldn’t find words to express how cool I thought it was.
During the car ride, I expressed my fascination with Thor Heyerdahl.
“You know, I have a funny story about Thor,” he said. “When I was much younger, working in the navy,” I attended a lecture by Thor. I bought a book of his, and wanted it signed. But after the lecture, he was surrounded by professors, military officers and politicians. Then, after a while, he notices me standing alone in a corner. He breaks out of the crowd and comes my way. “Hey, kid, what do you want?” I held out my book, and he signed it for me!”