Since I’ve already done a little write up on a few of my initial impressions of Moscow, I thought it would be worthwhile to put together a few thoughts covering the various “culture shock” moments and quirks I, as an American, have come across.
Cash versus plastic
Whereas in the United States very few places (restaurants, convenience stores, etc.) lack the ability to use debit or credit cards – with cash becoming increasingly less common in daily use – that is not at all the case in Moscow.
While a fair number of places take cards, cash is often considered the norm. It is always important to have a decent bit of cash on hand, otherwise you might find yourself unable to get your coffee and whatnot.
The there are a few odd paradoxes when it comes to this. The first is that, for the most part, swiping has become obsolete in Russia; instead, the far more secure chip or tap cards are the universal standard. In the United States, this is only just recently becoming the norm. Second, it seems that for a country that still largely relies on cash transactions, you’ll get grief for using even moderately large bills – it’s as though there is somehow a lack of change! It’s a bit perplexing.
Always carry cash and coin change in various increments is the lesson I quickly learned.
This practice took me a little while to figure out. Tips are not entirely expected here, but this is not unique to Russia, of course – the United States is the unusual one, as tipping the service staff is viewed as entirely mandatory (usually at a minimum of 15 to 20 percent). On the other hand, it is mostly optional here.
For a time, I tried to watch others’ tipping behavior to determine what the expectations were. I finally gave up and asked some locals what I’m expected to do, and learned that 10 percent is considered very fair for good service and is generally wise to do for my regular places. As an American, tipping is somewhat ingrained in me, so I almost always leave 10 percent regardless of service.
Cafe and restaurant service
On that note, eating out and getting coffee is somewhat different here. Perhaps the most obvious difference I noticed was that while wait staff in the United States tends to be highly attentive – almost to the point of being obnoxious in some cases – in Moscow a patron has to sometimes be rather assertive to get service. This, of course, is not always the case, but it is more often than not.
I don’t think I can recall even a single time I’ve been asked if I’m ready for the check. There have actually been a few times where I swear if I didn’t use semaphore and smoke signals to get my waiter’s attention I would have been sitting there until closing.
Something else that took me a little while to adjust to is the fact that regardless of the establishment – cafe, mall food court, or fancy restaurant – customers never take care of their empty espresso cups or food trays. Instead, there are attentive busing staff, not part of the wait staff, that usually pick this up immediately (often even before you’ve left).
It is also interesting that an overwhelming portion of the busing / cleaning staff and wait staff in general are women. The former are almost exclusively Caucasians (“Caucasian” means people from the Caucasus regions, not white people – this is the common nomenclature here) I’ve noticed.
My last note on cafes and restaurants regards the ubiquity of alcohol. No, this doesn’t apply to just trendy cafe/bar hybrids or restaurants – anywhere that has seating (and even some places that don’t) has some sort of hard beverage 95 percent of the time. That even includes fast food, like KFC. (Yep, a lot of American chains are here: Subway, Burger King, Starbucks, Domino’s, etc.)
That goes for any and all grocery-type stores too. Basically, if you can get food or coffee from a place, you can also get booze.
Public drinking, though not exactly legal, is also quite common. It is not uncommon to see a pair of girls sitting on a bench in a busy park sharing a bottle of wine or to see a man walking home with his daughter while drinking a beer.
That said, I think many Westerners would be somewhat surprised to learn that not all – or even most – Russians are hard drinkers (at least, not of my age group, the 30ish-ers). Some even abstain altogether.
“Where do you live?” or “Where is this/that?”
When describing a location in Moscow, neighborhoods (or as they are formally known here, districts) are rarely used. Instead, because of the enormous number of metro stations throughout the city, when answering “Where is (your home, the cafe, the event, etc.)?” the name of the nearest station is given as a reference. To me, at least, it took some adjusting to understand this way of talking about location.
Of course, this is more than likely specific to Moscow and wouldn’t necessarily be the case in smaller Russian cities.
Etiquette on public transport
Aside from the reliable and affordable Moscow transportation system (which includes over 200 subway stations as well as a number of tram and bus lines), a topic I will later dedicate a post to, the behavioral expectations while in the stations and cars can be somewhat interesting.
While some of this is not entirely unique to Moscow, when combined these rules (some of which are formal while others are not) seem a bit distinct from other large cities.
When on the escalators (which take less than five minutes to ride, but sometimes feel much longer), always stand to the right; some people are in a hurry and need to walk up or down. This is not uncommon in other big cities around the world, but there always seem to be tourists who aren’t with the program.
Boarding the subway, bus, or tram can be a somewhat disorganized mess and requires a good degree of assertiveness. Whereas I am accustomed to forming an orderly queue to get on the bus back in the United States, people here will often bunch around the doors jostling to board, even if it sometimes hinders those trying to exit.
Those who are elderly, with children, or disabled are given special deference; though this is officially required in public transport in many cities, Muscovites take this very seriously. It is not uncommon to see young, able-bodied bus riders in the United States bury their nose in their phones, pretending not to see an elderly person boarding and remaining in their seats. Here, however, most people, even if they are focused on their phones, seem to put effort into keeping an eye out to make sure someone else does not need their seat.
People with hampered mobility will also often be given a hand with boarding or disembarking without having to be asked, too. This applies to people with baby strollers as well.
Something that stood out strongly to me soon after coming to Moscow was the incredible number of people of all ages reading for recreation in public – in parks, on transport, in cafes. Though, yes, there are a number of people either checking their social media or playing games on their phones, it seems to me that far more are actually reading, if not from a paperback, then an eBook on their phone or tablet.
The popularity of reading is readily apparent in other ways. You don’t have to go far to find a bookstore in Moscow; sizable kiosks are also located all over, especially near metro stations, where a decent variety of paperbacks can be found.
Not too long ago I saw posters in several metro stations that featured a number of book covers paired with QR codes. Riders could scan these codes and download these eBooks entirely for free (using free public WiFi) to help pass the time during their commute. Presently, there are over 200 complimentary eBooks available according to the poster. I think this is very cool.
I have many more such little observations, however, I will leave that for another time. Please let me know which of these surprised you the most! Come back soon for more impressions of Moscow from this American!