One of the hardest things about living a year abroad, at least as an exchange student, is that you get to know people. And then, all too soon, you have to move.
Even if it’s just Chinese girls that you’ve mostly had contact with in your classroom or met as you pass each others in the hallway, leaving is always hard.
As much as I love travelling, and as much as it’s made me quite restless – sometimes there is nothing I want lesss than staying in one place for the rest of my life – one of the biggest downsides is that I have friends scattered across three continents, some of which I rarely get to see.
This can, of course, also be a positive – it means that there’s always, if not accommodation, then certainly people who are glad to see you wherever you go. But it can also make you blasé, in the worst case scenario. Or, at least, very restless. If you stay somewhere for too long, you get the feeling that there’s people on some part of the globe whom you need to see, and places you need to be.
But as much pride as I take in calling myself an International Citizen, there are still places that take up more space in my heart than others. Right now, Moscow is obviously one of them. I think, for as long as I live, Moscow and St. Petersburg will remain two of my all-time favorite cities, not least because I lived and learned Russian in them for so long.
Hopefully, as I grow older, some of my restlessness will disappear. Until then, my heart will always remain in the last city I fell in love with.
Ever since I came to Moscow in August of last year, it’s felt like I’ve been on a quest to become more russian. Besides all the effort I’ve put into becoming a better Russian speaker, that is. It hasn’t always been obvious – sometimes it’s been as simple as learning to appreciate the at times downright bizarre architecture of Moscow where apartment buildings from the Soviet era can be found sharing the outline of the city with skyscrapers from the naughties. But tonight it was obvious – very obvious.
You see, there’s this little band I’ve been listening to since before I could even speak Russian. I was sending letters to some girl I found on Interpals, and she recommended them to me. They’re only known in Russia and some former Soviet repulics such as Latvia.
The reason? All their lyrics are in Russian. They are known as Splean.
I have been wanting to see them live ever since I started studying Russian, and tonight I finally got to do it, inside a football stadium in Moscow, with a russian girl on my shoulders (technically from Belarus but her native language is Russian so whatever…). I was screaming the words that I knew, and sharing my love for this “little group” – as they like to refer to themselves – with thousands of russians and russian-speaking people. And even though I literally couldn’t understand anything of some of the songs, all of us had one thing in common: culture.
And I don’t just mean “culture” in the artistic sense of the word: I’ve come to realize that besides the ability to communicate more or less fluently in the same language, the one thing that binds a people together is “culture” in the sense of shared values, shared beliefs and, not least, shared experiences and cultural preferences.
Okay, so I didn’t grew up with Splean on the radio, or listened to them because my parents or my brother introduced me to them, or because I saw them on TV. Hell, the first time I heard them I couldn’t even understand anything of what they were singing about. But I love their songs just as deeply as any russian who’s listened to their music all his or her life. Maybe even more so, because I’ve had to go through a hell of a lot of work to understand what they were trying to tell me through their lyrics.
And tonight I got to confirm that: by the end of the concert, my lungs were burning, my ears were pounding, my feet, hands and neck were sore, and I knew that I could go to bed having given one hundred percent of my energy to share an experience I literally had to go through hundreds of classroom hours to be able to enjoy.
Was it worth it? When you’re singing words along with thousands of screaming people knowing that you are all there for the same thing: fuck yes, it was worth it.
Okay, so my Russian isn’t fluent yet – but tonight, I became a Russian. At least, culturally.
Having lived 8 months in Moscow, I thought the time had come to open up about places to visit in this magical city.
Esse Jazz Club
Esse Jazz Club, in the charming Pyatnitskaya street, hosts many national and international jazz artists every week. This place is especially recommended during Moscow’s long and hard winter and autumn seasons. The interior and music makes you feel like you’re in New York, and the food they serve upstairs is wonderful. If you’ve never experienced live jazz before, you could do worse than this place.
Offisielt kjent som Det all-russiske utstillingssenteret, er dette en av de største parkene i hele Moskva. Men det er ikke bare en park – som navnet antyder er det et utstillingssenter, komplett med statuer, museer, restauranter, raketter (ja, raketter!), og unike bygninger. Absolutt verdt en visitt, spesielt på en varm sommerdag.
The Red Square
Denne er nesten irriterende åpenbar. Likevel er det nødvendig å gå innom her hvis du aldri før har vært i Moskva. Her vil du kunne besøke Lenins mausoleum, Vasilijkatedralen (som nå er et museum), det russiske statlige historiske museum og handlesenteret GUM.
The Tretyakov gallery
This gallery houses some of the works of Russia’s best painters, past and present. If you’re just remotely interested in art, this place is worth a visit!
The Zaryade park
Located next to the Red Square, this park was designed by Americans. It includes a bridge that isn’t a bridge. The video says it all, really:
Moscow is a city of parks. Gorky is the park where people of all ages come to skate in the winter, and infatuated lovers will come to enjoy each other’s company in the spring. There are also restaurants here, and many cultural events during the summer.
One of the most famous streets in Moscow, at least according to the locals. Here you’ll find restaurants, cafes, shops, street musicians and generally good vibes all year round. The Norwegian embassy is also located not far from here.
The Kremlin museums
Located next to the Red Square, these museums include the Dormition Cathedral, the Cathedral of the Archangel, the Cathedral of the Annunciation, the Residence of the Patriarchs and the Church of the Twelve Apostles, the Ivan the Great Belltower and the Church of the Deposition of the Robe. It also includes two separate exhibitions, the Kremlin Armoury and the Diamond Fund. All the churches and the belltower can be accessed through one ticket, and are worth seeing if you’re interested in tsarist Russia’s religious past.
The Kremlin Armoury and the Diamond Fund can be accessed through separate tickets. The Armoury has a lot of clothes, thrones and regalia from the tsars, as well as Moscow’s only collection of Fabergé eggs produced for the Romanov family by the Fabergé company.
The Diamond Fund is a unique collection of gems, jewelry and natural nuggets. Amongst other things it has a copy of the Imperial Crown of Russia as made in 1762 for the coronation of Catherine the Great.
Central Children’s Store on Lubyanka
This is a massive store that sells toys for children of all ages. It also houses a large restaurant, a foodcourt, a cinema and a very impressive interior. Here, you can also go up to the roof to get a bird’s eye view of Moscow. Definitely worth a visit!
Papa’s Bar & Grill
Located at Nikolayskaya Street 10, this is one of Moscow’s biggest clubs. But it’s not just a club – as the name suggests, it’s also a bar and restaurant. Comprised of multiple stories, this place has everything you need for a great night out!
Pivnaya Biblioteka (literally: Beer Library) at Mytnaya Street 58 is an intimate bar located a bit away from the center of the city, where you can get to know the locals, This place is filled to the brim with everything that is good in the world: craft beer, books, and friendly russians.
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.