Monday, 31 October 2011

Moscow Diary: Hairstyles

Russian women have amazing hairstyles. Even on regular workdays, I see people on the metro with amazing combinations of plaits and buns and lord only knows what - the picture is more complicated than most of the ones I've seen, and the *most* complicated ones seem to mainly make an appearance at weddings, but even day to day complicated plaited arrangements seem common. And I haven't the faintest idea how they manage it - I can only conclude that Russian women are far better coordinated and far more nimble-fingered than I am!

Moscow Diary: More Metro

The more time I spend in Russia, the more obsessed I get with the Metro. So I've started comparing it with the London Underground:

- The trains are far more frequent in Moscow (Moscow 1, London 0)
- The escalators are incredibly slow and there are often huge bottlenecks getting into the platform (Moscow 1, London 1)
- But the actual platforms tend to be less crowded, presumably because of the more frequent trains and bottlenecks getting down to the platform (Moscow 2, London 1)
- The trains in Moscow have fewer places to hold on and stop and start more aggressively, including occasionally at random in the tunnel, so you occasionally get flung halfway across the carriage and into the person behind you (Moscow 2, London 2)
- The stations in Moscow are incredibly varied and beautiful, so every journey is a little adventure (Moscow 3, London 2)
- But there are very few signs at each station to tell you which station you're at (Moscow 3, London 3)
- But that means you have to memorise the stations and recognise them by their artistic style, which is more fun (Moscow 4, London 3)
- The Moscow metro runs extra services in winter to take into account the fact that the capacity of each train is reduced as people are wearing large coats so take up more space - brilliant piece of planning! (Moscow 5, London 3)
- Moscow is much cheaper (Moscow 6, London 3)
- Moscow starts earlier (5:30am) and runs later (1am) (Moscow 7, London 3)
- Moscow has scary ticket barriers (Moscow 7, London 4)
- Did I mention the stations? I'm counting them again because I like them so much (Moscow 8, London 4)

Surprise surprise, Moscow wins! I love the Metro!

Coming soon, my top 5 favourite metro stations, with pictures.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Moscow Diary: Condoms

These are the brands of condom available in my local supermarket. I really want to know what goes through someone's head when they deliberate between the 'romantic love' condoms and the 'relief' condoms to decide what message they want to send their partner.


"Well, ordinarily I would go with 'romantic love', but I don't really like this girl that much, so I'm going to go with 'relief'"

or perhaps preparing to say something like:

"I know you said you wanted to wait, but I really love you, look, it says it on the box of condoms and everything"

Any other suggestions welcomed, and obviously if anyone knows the actual difference then I'd love to know!

Moscow Diary: Heating

In the UK, you get to control the level of the heating in your home, and when it goes on and off, and pay the bill yourself for the heat you use. Not so in Russia – at least not in Russian apartments. The heating is controlled centrally for the whole building, so at a particular date, or when it’s been below a particular temperature for a certain number of days, the heating gets switched on for the whole building. In my case, that was last week, and it meant going from sleeping in a hoodie to sleeping in a t-shirt with the window open. Seriously, it’s that hot.

Some thoughts:
- rapid temperature changes = can’t be good for you!
- the bit of my brain that worries about climate change wants to cry. I understand that you need central heating in Russia, but seriously, it’s winter, it’s meant to be cold, just put a jumper on!
- the obsession with high heat has got to be related to not paying gas bills individually, or people would just put jumpers on and turn the heat down to save money.
- I’m going to need to do some serious layering!

On the plus side, at least this way you avoid thermostat wars with your housemates...

Moscow Diary: Gender

Mostly Russia seems pretty similar to the UK, but there are definitely some areas that club you over the head sometimes. One of the big ones is gender relations.

In Russia, women wear heels and makeup, and chivalry is not dead. Several times on the metro young men have offered me their seat, to my general incredulity – why on earth they think I’m less capable of standing than they are I have no idea! As it happens, of course, I am less capable of standing, because I’m wearing silly high-heeled shoes because that’s what you do in Russia. But the Russian girls seem to be happy running around in even sillier high-heeled shoes, so it can’t be that. On dates, the men are expected to pay for everything. I asked a Russian friend about it and pointed out that it was a bit harsh on the guy if they earn the same amount – she replied that it was awesome if you were a girl. Then one of my British friends, preparing for a date with a Russian asked what I thought about it – and maybe it shouldn’t seem weird, but it really really does.

Then there’s the stereotyping. I was at home a couple of weeks ago and the internet stopped working. Maxim was going to fix it, and I commented that I didn’t understand computers much. Yasna, who is generally independent, has a career, and doesn’t seem to see herself as limited by gender, said that of course I didn’t understand computers – that was men’s work. I was so flabbergasted I just stared blankly, which was probably a good thing because it stopped me saying something offensive! A week or two later, I was about to cut a watermelon, when Lena, my other housemate stopped me and asked Maxim to do it instead – again, that was man’s work.

But with my geek hat on, I’ve got to point out that that’s just the metropolitan stuff you see if you live on a comfortable income in Moscow, and in the country at large there’s a much bigger gender crisis. While women here live to 75 on average, men die at 63, mainly because of alcoholism and heart disease. As well as being disastrous for men, this means that poor people are overwhelmingly women – elderly widows and younger ones who are left to raise families alone, often having spent long periods outside the workforce. And people aren’t good at practicing safe sex, so STIs are rising and the abortion rate is terrifying. It isn’t a subject I know much about, but poor sexual health practices are generally linked to a combination of lack of knowledge and women not feeling able to assert themselves. So the gender system is negatively affecting both men and women – which is why gender mainstreaming is such an important part of Oxfam’s work here.

All in all, it’s enough to get you down sometimes. But I’m an optimist, and luckily the trends bear me out – the male average life expectancy has risen from 59 a few years ago, and the abortion rate is down from 1.6 for every 1 live births to 1.2 (yup, told you it was scary). At a social level, in the UK I have occasionally gone out with people who’ve been slightly surprised at my insistence on buying rounds on dates (usually this is a reasonably good sign that they aren’t someone I want to go out with!), so splitting it is obviously not yet ubiquitous. So there are reasons to be cheerful, and I’d be interested to come back in a decade or so and see how things have changed.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Moscow Diary: Smiling

Russians are notorious for being miserable bastards. Most Russians tell me that isn’t true, they just don’t smile unless there’s a reason to. I’m not totally convinced by this – I can usually think of quite a lot of reasons to smile, starting with the slightly-sanctimonious ‘well, you’re not in a refugee camp in Somalia’ and working down from there, and being generally happy seems like as good a reason to smile as any. But I can see their point, and if they don’t want to smile and be happy, it’s no skin off my nose.

Where it is a problem, is that smiling isn’t only evidence of an unusually happy demeanor – it’s also a sign of being an idiot. A number of us Brits have been told off for smiling too much, and told that people won’t take us seriously. So now, as well as having to communicate with people with handsignals and dodgy Russian, I have to remember to not smile while I’m doing it. Or just accept that people will think I’m an idiot, which at the moment seems rather more appealing!

Moscow Diary: Tea

Everywhere you go, there are certain questions that people ask you. In most of Africa I get asked if I’m saved. In Georgia I got asked if I liked Khatchapuri. And in Moscow I get asked what the tea is like in England. This then breaks down into sub-questions, where people ask me what brands of tea are available in England (which makes sense, as there a lot of brands of ‘English’ tea available here that I’ve never seen in the UK), how we drink our tea (with MILK? Really?), and what I think of Russian tea. I’ve also been asked twice why English Breakfast is called English Breakfast (me: “err... because we drink it for breakfast?” Russian: “but is it made in the UK?” Me: “no, I think it’s made in India” Russian: “So why English breakfast? Why not just breakfast” Me: “Err....”)

The reason is that Russians really love their tea. I live in a particularly tea-loving household, with a housemate who is a professional tea taster (seriously, that job exists) and with only one box of teabags in the house (some redbush ones I brought from the UK, which my housemates have relegated to a dark corner of the cupboard). But ordinary cafes and restaurants have huge tea menus, usually with several types of black and green teas, as well as various types of tea with berries and other herbs added (for pedants: often these involve actual tea as well, so can accurately be called ‘teas’ rather than ‘infusions’). When I travelled to the country for the weekend with a couchsurfer, I was given vast amounts of tea made with bundles of herbs added, brewed strong in a teapot, and topped up with water from the kettle. And my colleagues regularly have in-depth discussions about the best things to add to regular black tea. It’s a pretty limited sample, but it seems fair to say that the Russians like their tea.

This obviously has its advantages – I, along with most other British people I know, constantly complain about how in many countries they make tea with hot water rather than boiling water, so it’s never quite right. And that isn’t a problem in Russia. Plus drinking lots of different teas is fun, and whereas I resent paying a cafe to dump a teabag in a mug, I don’t resent paying them to make me a mix of tea and berries in a little teapot.

The downside, though, is the questioning. There is an apparently widespread view of the UK as some kind of tea-drinking mecca. Which is ironic, while the UK consumes huge amounts of tea each year, our tea-making doesn’t generally extend to much more than dumping a Tetley teabag in the mug and adding boiling water. Our tea preferences are generally limited to the exact amount of milk and a totally baffling interest in whether the milk should go in the cup before or after you pour (aside: if you put the milk in first, how on earth do you judge if you’ve put in the right amount?). But of course I don’t want to tell them that, because it would be like telling a six year old that Santa doesn’t exist. So I’m left explaining that we like our tea strong and with milk, and that it’s very different from Russian tea and they’re both good in their own way. And meanwhile, my colleagues, who’ve mostly actually been to the UK, tell me what a disappointment it was to them.

Conclusion: if I ever have a Russian visitor in the UK, I need to get some seriously good tea, and put some serious effort into preparing it.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Moscow Notes: The Metro

The Moscow metro is a key part of the city. It’s known for its spectacular stations, built by Stalin to keep the population’s spirits up and inspire them with Soviet glory should they be forced to shelter there in a war. And they don’t disappoint – even the dull stations have high ceilings, tall columns and decorated walls, and the more ornate ones are adorned with mosaics, chandeliers, paintings, statues, plasterwork and marble – each different, and all beautiful.

But the metro’s not only amazing for its architecture. It’s also massive, extending all the way out to the outer ring road, and is it the second most-used rapid transit system in the world (Tokyo comes first, if you’re curious), with 10 million people using it every day to get to work. The trains come regularly every couple of minutes, starting at 5:30am and closing at 1am. Even on Sunday. Mobile phones work throughout the metro, and they’re talking about setting up wifi. Seriously, London can learn from this.

Lots of things they do are the same as London, too. People stand on the right on the escalators, which makes me feel bizarrely at home, and people queue in an orderly manner for the kassa. Everyone reads (a lot of them on kindles). There is a ‘Metro’ newspaper, which everyone reads in the morning. And no-one smiles, and everyone avoids looking at anyone else, and if they meet your eye by accident they turn away as quick as they can. So far, so familiar.

Of course there are things that are different. The timing boards tell you when the last train left, not when the next one is. On the plus side, if you know how often they are you can figure out how long you’ll be waiting, and at least they’re accurate, but on the other hand, it isn’t as helpful as knowing when the next one will be. The other main difference is the circle line – in London, anyone with sense avoids using it if they possibly can. It’s horribly slow, has a station every 10 metres, and the trains are enormously infrequent. So in Moscow, I began by instinctively arranging routes so as not to go on the circle line. I quickly learned my mistake – not only are the circle line stations the most spectacular, but it works incredibly quickly and the interchanges tend to be pretty short. Turns out that when they work, circle lines are actually pretty useful!

But the only thing which even comes close to a culture shock is the ticket barriers. They work on a smart card system (you either buy a pass, or a card with a certain number of journeys pre-loaded), but the barriers aren’t always closed, making it disturbingly easy to avoid tapping in by accident. To avoid this, there are police in scary uniforms with massive peaked caps stationed at strategic points in every station, and they don’t hesitate to stop you if they think you’re trying to dodge. Needless to say, this is slightly intimidating for the novice metro user – and, as a friend pointed out the other day, the terror you feel when the militzia move, and the relief you feel when you realise they’re stopping someone else and scurry away before they notice you, is a definite insight into how totalitarianism works!

Moscow Notes: The Scale of the City

When my housemates asked me what was different about Moscow, I actually found it pretty hard to answer – it’s a big developed city, and they’re all a bit the same, and the combination of Budapest a couple of years ago and Tblisi and Yerevan this year meant I’d kind of got over the post-Communist stuff. So beyond ‘well all the signs are in funny letters’ I was a bit stumped.

When I thought about it, though, the main thing I’m struggling to get my head around is the sheer scale of the city. A lot of the time you don’t notice – after all, if you just go from your apartment to the metro and then from the metro to work it doesn’t feel that big, and the metro is much faster than the London underground, so even going right to the outer ring doesn’t take that long (yes, I have done – to go to Ikea. So I’ve now shopped in Ikea in three countries. Oh yes.)

But the thing is, that Moscow is MASSIVE. At least 12 million people in the city itself, and 20 million if you count ‘greater Moscow’. And everything in the city is bigger than it is in London. The main roads aren’t 2 or 3 lanes each way, they’re 4 or 5 lanes each way. The buildings are a bit bigger – I live on the 12th floor, and I’m not in a big apartment block. And even in the centre of town, the metro stations are a really long way apart – but you don’t realise till you try and walk, because the scale makes them look close together on a map. The shopping centres are huge. The parks are huge. The monuments are huge.

Conclusion: Moscow is like London, but on growth hormones.