What my Russian Grandmother Taught Me

I chose to live with a host family during my stay in Moscow and upon my arrival, still had no idea about the composition of my host family, their interests, language skills, etc. Olga Dmitreevna, my host mother, doesn’t speak any other languages besides Russian, and I speak only poor Russian so it’s been a fun game of learning how to communicate. While the first night was frustrating, by this point we’ve figured out how to talk to one another and how to hold conversations. After a few weeks of living with her, Olga Dmitreevna has taught me a few life lessons:

  • “No Exit” or “No Entry” in the Metro stations isn’t always true

When I first arrived in Russia, I was careful to observe all laws and social etiquette. It’s painfully easy for Russians to spot foreigners, and sometimes attention can bring trouble. Almost every day, I have to take the Metro to my university. At the station closest to my university, Белорусская, I have to leave the station, cross the street, go up a flight of stairs, and then walk down the street to my university. On my first day of classes, my host mother went with me so I didn’t get lost on Metro. As I prepared myself to go through the annoying paces to get on the right side of the street, I watched as my host mother, blatantly ignoring the two feet tall sign indicating “No Entry”, walked through the entrance and took a much easier path to my university. No one attempted to stop her and as I watched, a few more people did the same thing. Since then, I’ve always followed Russians’ lead on how to navigate street and Metro signs.

  • Sour cream goes with everything.

Blini. Soup. Salad. Potatoes. Pelmeni. Bread. Cabbage. Everything. I’ve only ever used sour cream as a way to cool down spicy food, and I’m pretty sure I’ve had more sour cream in the past couple of weeks than the past five years. After I arrived in Russia, I first started putting sour cream in my food because I decided “When in Rome…” but now I’ve learned to enjoy it. As to whether that will stay true once I return to the States, I’m not entirely sure.

  • Tea is not a drink but an occasion.

Since moving in with my host mother, a cup of tea has never taken me less than thirty minutes. I’ll have a cup of tea with every meal (even on days when the temperature reaches 40 C) and sometimes another cup if I come home earlier than usual. I love to drink tea but before coming to Russia, it was always a solitary, unwinding kind of drink. With my host mother, tea is a sociable drink for sharing with others. At first it was difficult with the language barrier but as my Russian improved, so did the quality of the conversations. Even so, I’m still terrible at small talk.

  • Patience is worth it.

As mentioned before, I speak very poor Russian, and my host mother speaks only Russian. I consider her a saint because she makes an effort to have conversations with me and not only over necessary things like food and laundry situations. The first couple of days it was like pulling teeth. It wasn’t fun, there was a lot of repetition and charades, and sometimes we just gave up. Even now, after particularly difficult days of classes when my Russian has gone down the drain, she still makes an effort to ask about my day or family or how I how liked whatever museum or park I had gone to that day. Sometimes I have to break out the dictionary. Sometimes I stop declining my nouns. Sometimes I understand but have no idea how to respond. Despite all of this, she still stubbornly makes an effort, and that has made all the difference in the world.

Theatrical Adventures throughout Moscow- 2

This week has been full of cultural excursions to театральная metro station. There, one can find the theater district in Moscow. The most famous theater, the Большой, can be found in the center of the square directly off the metro. It is there that I saw a ballet performance of Ondine, the story of an encounter between a water nymph and mortal man. Russian ballet is recognized around the world for its prestige, and after seeing the skill-level from these performers I would readily agree with the assessment. Every movements were perfectly coordinated and the stage design was beautiful. The theater itself was beautiful as well, boasting ornate chandeliers and painstakingly painted scenes. This performance was held on the New Stage, which has only been open for performances since 2002.

New Stage interior:


In my experience so far, the people in the city are incredibly friendly. The stereotype of unfriendliness derives from people keeping to themselves in public areas. Everyone is very quiet on the metro, either reading a book, using their phones, or resting their eyes. Loud behavior on the streets is also frowned upon and rowdy behavior is a surefire way to spot foreigners. However, despite their reserved nature, people are incredibly sincere and helpful when they open up to you.

Later in the week, I went to a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in another Moscow theater. We learned about the performance from a Muscovite we met who happened to be the sound engineer for the theater and offered us some tickets to the performance. This was the greatest linguistic challenge that I have experienced thus far because they maintained much of the integrity of the play by using archaic language. It was difficult to extract meaning from some parts of the play, and at some parts I was relying entirely on my fellow audience members to recognize when Shakespearean jokes were being made. This evening was also my first encounter with the stereotypical Russian grandmother (babushka). It was a hot day, with a high of 88º F. The woman sitting next to me turns to me and asks if I’m not cold in only a short sleeved shirt before offering me one of her two wool sweaters to wear so I don’t catch a cold.

In the vein of language-related adventures, the immersion experience has allowed me to make leaps I would never be able to in an American classroom. I am learning a tremendous amount by listening to my Russian friends speak amongst themselves. Colloquial speech is drastically different from what I learned in class prior to my trip. For example, by going out to restaurants, I’ve picked up four different, and more idiomatic, ways of asking for the check.

Moscow Initial Impressions – 1

The last week in Moscow has been full of adventures, both practical and cultural. As soon as I arrived in the airport, my education abroad began with seeking out a taxi. Luckily, I did some research before boarding my plane and learned that my trip should cost about 2000 rubles, so I was not taken advantage of by the taxi drivers waiting beyond Customs advertising fares of 6000 RUB. One especially adamant driver followed me through half the airport, systematically lowering his fare until I accepted for the price of 1800 RUB, or about 30 USD. Unlike in the US, Russian taxi companies rarely use meters. Instead, you must establish the price before leaving your destination. This was my first encounter with Russians in Moscow, and I was very proud of being able to haggle with my taxi driver in only slightly broken Russian.

The following day, Saturday, involved finding a place to exchange more USD to RUB. I had only exchanged enough to get me through the previous day, because I knew the rates at the airport would be far less advantageous than elsewhere in the city. After finding a shop not far from where I was staying, I took my rubles to the metro to buy a pass. Moscow’s metro is as efficient as it is elegant. The trains come every 2 minutes (~1 minute during peak hours). Each station has its own ornamentation and they range from crisp and modern to opulent and historic. As one rides the escalators down 200 ft, the décor comes into view and can only be described as breathtaking. During WWII, these stations were used as bombproof shelters for the residents of Moscow. Having never lived in a city before, I was apprehensive of my ability to navigate the metro, but the signs in the station as well as one very useful app allowed me to catch on to the workings of this form of transportation very quickly.

After becoming acquainted with the campus of Moscow Humanities University (Московский гуманитарный университет) on Monday, I began my classes on Tuesday. My class has two students, including myself. The other student is a heritage speaker of Russian, so it’s safe to say the environment is challenging. We conduct class entirely in Russian, and have discussed Lermontov and Pushkin’s poetry this week. I feel my listening comprehension improving drastically as I hear the language’s natural flow both in class and around me. I hope that speaking proficiency will follow not far behind.


Пока for now!




Underground Palaces

Before coming to Russia, I could count on one hand the number of times I had been on a Metro. Upon arriving in Moscow, I learned I would be primarily using the Metro to get around. I was in a panic! I could barely speak the language and had no idea how to use public transportation. I also didn’t have good memories of the Metro systems in the States. I remembered dark, dirty, crowded places where no one wanted to linger long. After almost two weeks in Moscow and countless trips on the Metro, I can confidently say the Moscow Metro system is one of the most user friendly systems I have ever encountered.
The first station I ever entered was Белорусская. It was like being in a museum or an art gallery. The station was well lit, the walls and floors were well designed and beautiful to look at, and it was so clean despite the large numbers of people passing through. I pass through it nearly every day, and the wall decorations and mosaics still catch my interest. However, the most stunning station I have seen so far is Киевская. It is one of the most frequently used stations and has light fixtures resembling chandeliers, paintings on the walls of the platforms, and statues.

Киевская станция

Киевская станция

Not all stations are as opulent as Киевская, especially as one gets further away from the center, but all the stations are clean and safe. My favorite station is Боробъёвы горы or ‘Sparrow Hills’. It’s close to my home station and is one of the few stations above ground. The station itself offers a beautiful view of the Moscow river and the local park is large and perfect to гулять. It’s also close to МГУ, the most famous Russian university, and the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Боробъёвы горы

Боробъёвы горы станция

View from inside station

View from inside station

More importantly, the system itself is easy to navigate.


The efficient beauty of the Moscow Metro System

The different lines are color coded so while I may not have the actual names of the lines memorized, I can always refer to the ‘dark blue line’ or the ‘red line’. If I accidentally got on the wrong train or pass my station, it’s a simple matter of getting off at the next station, crossing the platform, and boarding the opposite train back. The trains pass by pretty regularly (I haven’t had to wait more than three minutes for my train) and the stations are rarely closed or under construction.

The Metro also has unspoken rules that all Russians follow (and make it really easy for foreigners to stick out). If you’re not walking down the escalator, stick to the right side. If you’re walking down the escalator, walk down the left side. Always give up your seat to old бабушки or women with children (thus, all the men tend to rarely get a seat). Get where you’re going and don’t just stand in the middle of the Metro talking. On the Metro itself, don’t speak above what’s necessary for your friend beside you to hear. It’s a beautifully efficient system, and that I feel quite fortunate to experience. My resident director told my group at the orientation that the Moscow Metro system is the best in the world, and after experiencing it firsthand, I am inclined to agree.