Expat Living: Polly Barks in Moscow, Russia
The latest addition to my Expat Living interview series is freelance writer and blogger Polly Barks. Originally from the United States, Polly’s lived in Moscow for the past five years.
She takes us where this blog has never been before and tells us all about life in Russia. Polly also joins other expats here on cherylhoward.com who’ve lived in exotic places like Samantha in Costa Rica or Matt in Taiwan.
Expat Living: Polly Barks in Moscow, Russia
She’s lived in Moscow since 2010, working as an ESL teacher to the CEOs of major oil companies and some of the richest 5-year-olds in the world.
Thankfully she’s about to leave that behind and is planning her triumphant return to the USA. She’s currently a freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of the former Like a Local Mag.
Where are you from?
Berryville, Virginia in the United States.
Where are you living now and how long have you been there? Do you plan on staying?
I now live in Moscow, Russia. I’ve lived here since 2010 but I’m actually planning to head back home to the United States soon.
Did you move there alone or with family, friends, a significant other or even a pet?
I arrived alone and not knowing anyone in Russia.
What brought you to your new home? Tell us your story.
I majored in Russian Studies and International Relations in college. After finishing my degree a year early (a bit by surprise), I was at loose ends as to what to do next. I applied for an ESL job that didn’t require any experience, got the job, and was in Moscow a month after graduation!
What do you do work wise? Is finding work in your city easy? What are the visa requirements like?
I have taught ESL in Russia with various companies. I’m also a freelance writer and I’m in the last stages of finishing a brand new Moscow guidebook.
Russia is not a country you can come into and find a job. Well, it’s theoretically possible, but if you enter on a tourist visa you’ll need to leave the country and reapply for a work visa which is a lot of extra money. Stay home and find a job before you go!
Visa requirements are not particularly stringent – particularly if you’ve already been hired – but they can be time consuming and expensive. I won’t give too much detail because it varies by country, but be prepared to need a visa no matter why you’re going and know that it will cost several hundred dollars and require some specific paperwork.
How do you “blend in” and be accepted by locals?
While I don’t look particularly Russian, I blend in fairly easily in Russia as I speak the language passably and I’m white. As long as you are not visibly different, Russians can’t or don’t care to target you as a foreigner.
To be accepted, I think most foreigners just need to get over their fear of the stereotypical ‘angry Russian’ – I’ve almost never encountered a Russian who didn’t break into a smile when they figured out I was an American trying to speak Russian.
Learn some of the language and see Russia open up to you!
How did you make friends? Are you friends with locals or with other expats?
For such a large city, the expat community in Moscow is quite small and incestuous. If you know one person, you know pretty much everyone and you’ll almost always see someone you know if you go out to certain clubs.
Rich expats (those who work for international firms) tend to be more insular and stick with other expats; whereas poor expats (English teachers, nannies) tend to have a good mix.
I’d say I have a 60/40 split of expat to local friends.
Did you have to learn a language? What learning methods do you recommend?
I had it relatively easy as I had studied Russian language before I arrived but it’s always shocking to me that so many expats arrive here without knowing a word of Russian and then complain about how difficult it is.
I would encourage people getting ready to come to at least learn the Cyrillic alphabet as many signs are not translated.
Programs like DuoLingo or Live Mocha are great options for studying a little bit – although Duo Lingo is only in the starting stages of its Russian language program.
Russian is hard and most expats don’t bother to learn it – don’t be that guy.
What do you love the most about your new home?
It may not be as developed as many Western European capital cities, but Moscow is open 24/7 and there’s always something to do.
I’ve spent way too much time wandering the city, admiring the architecture – the mix of very old, Soviet, and very new buildings make Moscow one of the most dynamic cities in the world.
What do you “hate” the most about your new home?
I hate how close-minded people can be. I’m not even talking political affiliations (though as a socially liberal westerner I find myself constantly biting my tongue). It’s much more pervasive than that.
For example, Russians are taught that it’s acceptable to use the n-word for black people. I understand that they don’t have a connection to the historical connotations of the word as an American does, but when a foreigner explains that it’s an unacceptable word in English, the answer is inevitable: a shrug and a ‘well, it’s just the way it’s done here’.
Less politically charged but no less infuriating is that stores never open with change in the register, meaning it’s perfectly acceptable for cashiers to turn you away if you don’t have change. Why?! ‘It’s just the way it’s done.’
This attitude is by far the worst part of Russian life and the reason why many aspects of Moscow’s life, culture, and economy are simply stagnating.
Polly’s Favourite Things in Moscow.
Coffee shop? Conversation Cafe (Bolshaya Nikitskaya 23/14/9) – great drinks and even better donuts/cakes.
Bookstore? Biblio Globus (Myasnitskaya 6/3) – the one stop shop for Russian books, English-language books, and Russian textbooks.
Market? Levsha & Izmailovo – I’ve written a full post about these two great places to find souvenirs and Soviet kitsch.
Nightlife spot? Kruzhka (all over the city) – It’s not great, but it’s one of the few bars in the city you can sit for a few hours and blow your whole paycheck. Kruzhka is a massive sports bar so be sure to check for major sporting events before you go in on the weekend lest you be surrounded by aggressive football hooligans!
Restaurant? Mari Vanna (Spiridonyevsky pereulok 10a) – a small international chain selling great, authentic Russian food. It’s a bit pricey, but worth it for the great food and the angry-faced cat who acts as the restaurant’s mascot. FYI: bookings are essential, particularly on the weekends.
Thing to do? Walk. Walk everywhere. Exit from a central metro station and lose yourself in the side streets – you’ll be sure to discover something new (a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, great street art, beautiful architecture) and you’ll find yourself getting more and more comfortable with the city. Bonus: you’re always relatively close to a metro station so you’ll never be totally lost!
Expat Living Information
Did you think this interview with Polly Barks in Moscow, Russia is interesting? Then check out my Expat Living section with stories about what it’s like to come home after living abroad or how to find a job in Berlin.