An American’s culture shock while in Moscow (Part One)

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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.

Tipping

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.

Booze

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.

Reading

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!

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By | 2017-06-30T13:06:04+00:00 June 24th, 2017|Tags: , , , , |10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Stephanie Wednesday June 28th, 2017 at 07:59 PM - Reply

    Love your perspective, I noticed all of the same things while living there. It’s such a special and unique city.

  2. James Tucker Wednesday June 28th, 2017 at 08:23 PM - Reply

    I like your observations very much. Helps me have a more open mind towards the Russian people. I’d like to suggest that you open your text with your name and the date, it is not readily apparent when reading on my phone.

  3. Katja Thursday June 29th, 2017 at 03:45 PM - Reply

    Hi Llowell, thank you for an intersting review of a non-local!
    Easy and interesting to read!
    Let me speak out my agrees and not)
    1. Alco.. It is my pity to disappoint you but there is no booze in McDonalds anywhere))
    Also, I think only 70-80% of places have alcohol. And I also do not agree that people drink everywhere – it seems to me in Germany it is much more – and here it is forbidden to do outside in public or inside.
    2. Cards. You will not die without coffee with a plastic card in Moscow – it is for sure! I think 85% of places have it. Maybe you were just unlucky.
    3 . Tips. I was so shocked (last year) when I knew how much money do the Amercian waiters expect. It makes eating process really a thing to think. as20% will go to a guy.
    Here 10% is standard if you like and want – you can give even 200% – they will be happy, their official salary is about 330-400$.
    But many people do not leave anything, or managers are not demanding – then they can be lousy. It depends on the place. I do not leave tips if they are really ignoring or not friendly, and even haughty. Also, I can leave a review in afisha.ru about them))

    Agree:
    about Reading and places to old – though I think about 60% of men observe these rules for old people)
    Sometimes I even asked guys to give places to really old women or old guys with a walking stick. =)
    so by our standards – everybody should help with kids strolls (men), heavy bags (man should help to women) and give a place to seat =) And there is room to improve))

    • Llowell Williams Friday June 30th, 2017 at 01:11 PM - Reply

      Thanks for your comment! Corrected about McDonalds, I could have sworn…

  4. bob Friday June 30th, 2017 at 12:29 AM - Reply

    are you from a little town in america? smallsville? seriously. i am also guessing you are about 20x. welcome to a) big city b) foreign country c) not a place scared of snowflakes

    • Llowell Williams Friday June 30th, 2017 at 01:13 PM - Reply

      I grew up in a small town, yes, but ended up moving away for university. I’m not sure how any of that makes my views any less valid, though. A large number of Americans do not live in urban communities. Most of the things I pointed out are unique to Moscow.

  5. Max Friday June 30th, 2017 at 03:11 PM - Reply

    Llowell – nice post and as a Kiwi living in Moscow for the last 4 years – agree with most of it. However a lot is changing very fast in this great city.
    Cash is certainly still king and you can get badly caught out when a certain cafe or bar that habitually takes cards suddenly tells you that their machines aren’t working – this is almost universally because the owners have a small cash-flow crisis and need to pay immediate bills!!
    Re public transport – I have always been impressed when travelling with small kids when the babushka sitting down elbows the nearest able-bodied male to stand up to give the child a seat – unheard of anywhere else. Not sure if you have kids but the babushkas in Moscow are also not at all shy about giving you childcare advice – especially if you dare to take your infant out in public without a hat if the temperature is below 20 degrees Celsius.
    I think re restaurants the service is fast improving – most of the more mainstream places have better service than I have encountered in New York or London. It is true that if you go to the increasingly popular ‘soviet style’ places the service is a bit random – but that is all part of the experience. I think regarding getting the bill, Russians would think it hugely impolite to ask if you wanted the bill – many people spend what in the West we would see as an inordinate amount of time in a cafe just drinking a pot of tea without the owners seeming to mind – I think it is part of the Eastern way.
    Finally one small correction – the (yes very often) ladies that bus the tables in most restaurants are not from the Caucasus regions (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan), but are generally from the much poorer Central Asian former republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan….
    Look forward to reading more!!

    • Llowell Williams Friday June 30th, 2017 at 05:06 PM - Reply

      Thanks for your kind words! Good points! I don’t terribly mind the unevenness of restaurant/cafe service, I just found it a bit unusual and took a bit of time for me to “get with the program.” To be honest, I somewhat prefer this type of service compared to that in the US where waitstaff seem to hover over you and interrupt your conversation frequently. I’ve also grown accustomed to keeping enough cash on hand lest plastic be a problem. Thanks again!

  6. @WabarusWorldWide Sunday July 9th, 2017 at 04:59 AM - Reply

    Read through this whole post. Really well done, I think you could have used a bit more images to keep a reader engaged more as a picture can be worth a thousand pictures.

    I’m a traveling photographer and this whole blog post has inspired me to start sharing my experiences of south east asia. Came here from Reddit, so thank you for posting in the expat group. I’ve been extremely interested in visiting Russia and I guess I’ve just been a little worried. But after reading this, I’m genuinely interested again… Want to go to St Petersburg and work with modeling agencies.

    • Llowell Williams Tuesday July 11th, 2017 at 08:37 PM - Reply

      Glad to hear that enjoyed it! You should definitely come visit, Russia is a lovely place.

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