It Doesn’t Look so Bad from Over There

2001-2007A month or so ago, I suggested to the editor of this magazine that he might print a piece about what former Moscow expats miss about Moscow. He replied that yes, it would be interesting and with barely any hesitation, provoked me to pick up my pen and quill and start writing. My admittedly not very scientific survey of former expat friends and acquaintances revealed quite an array of reminiscences, from Russian banyas to sushi and the Starlite Diner, the Moscow Metro to unlicensed gypsy cabs. From wild all-nighters to hangovers on deserted railway platforms outside dacha villages in the dead of winter.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the cold climate, food plays a big part in people’s memory of Moscow, though not many expats are talking about selyodka pod shuby (if you haven’t yet tried it, this is pickled herring under a chilly ‘fur coat’ of beetroot, potatoes, carrots, onions, eggs and mayonnaise – delicious!). For the most part, it is the variety of international comfort foods that seems to stick in the memory, though I have to say, I am a bit partial to a Russian mushroom julienne (ok, so maybe it is French in origin, but no one makes them like the Russians!).

As Bob and Maria Holliday, back home in sunny Costa Rica after living in Moscow from 1995-1998 and again from 2005-2008, put it: “we miss the cosmopolitan lifestyle that Moscow offers. You can get anything, and eat nearly any type of exotic food there is. There are times when we crave the cheeses you could get in the shops, or those fabulous almond croissants. We even miss the blinis from the portable blini stands. Miss that khachapuri too.”

It is a little ironic, given the ongoing crackdown on anything Georgian, that many expats’ abiding food memory is of Georgian restaurants, where the joie de vivre, devilishly bad-for-your-heart khachapuri and plastic grapevines are so at odds with the frequently icy streets. Indeed, this fondness for all things Georgian is not unique to expats – a Russian friend visiting me in London enthusiastically helped me polish off my treasured bottle of Georgian brandy in preference to the ubiquitous Armenian variety (we drank that next…).

Possibly not comfort food, but Hannah Kozlova (2001-2007) fondly remembers being able to order sushi pretty much whichever restaurant she went to, in spite of Moscow being some 1,000km from the nearest sea. Mention that to anyone who has never been to Moscow, and they might not believe you. Then again, take a Japanese client for Russian sushi, as I once did, and they might not pass their compliments to the chef…

For me, and many others, getting around Moscow was often a liberating experience. Does that sound strange, as you contemplate the gridlock for which Moscow has become world-famous, the sharp elbows of the babooshki in the Metro, the ill-conceived, flimsy and inevitably crumpled barcode tickets that you have to scan to get off the suburban railway platforms, and the miles you sometimes have to walk just to cross a road safely? Maybe, but some aspects of Moscow travel are really quite convenient, when you think about them. Jules Evans, freelance journalist in Moscow from 2004-2007, misses the ‘crazy cab drivers.’ Maybe I was not as keen as Jules on the crazy ones, but at least they made the journey interesting/exhilarating, depending on your point of view. And meeting up for a bite to eat at 10pm in Moscow was never an issue, whereas in London, I find myself wondering how I am going to get home if I stay out late, whether I am going to pay a small fortune for a black cab, or wait half the night for a bus.

Of course, in London, you would struggle to find anywhere to eat beyond 10pm. Nicolas Ollivant recalls bars and restaurants that were open all night long, and the rolling social life that revolved around them, as parties swelled and shrank – perhaps that goes some way to explaining why so many Moscow office desks were/are largely deserted at 9am.

Something else that Nicolas mentioned, which I am ashamed to say I paid only scant attention to, were Russia’s old churches and monasteries. Given my time in Moscow again, I think I would make more effort to absorb that more ancient side of Russian culture, before they all get ‘evroremonts.’

As for the Moscow Metro – and you cannot write an article like this without mentioning it – setting aside the elbows of one’s fellow passengers and the occasional lolling drunken head, I can’t say fairer than Bob Holliday: “Oh BTW, I hope you’re making mention of the best damn metro system in the world. It was what gave Maria the freedom to take her classes and go to the expat meetings… just a thought.”

Perhaps most significant for all of us former expats, Jules Evans “misses the daily surprise and amusement at life in a very different country.” That is certainly true. Very different, and yet still European, still familiar, and once you get past the frosty exteriors, it is warm and welcoming on the inside. So remember, next time you are cursing the exorbitant price of a half-decent bottle of claret, you will miss the place when you are gone.

The author lived in Moscow in 1998 and again from 2001-2007, and is director of www.MarketingCopy.org, a London-based copywriting, proofreading and translation cooperative.