I felt a little nervous about my arrival in Moscow.
The last time I was here, in 2011, it had been… a challenging experience.
It wasn’t so much my inability to read Cyrillic or the lack of signage – key elements that would have aided navigation. It was the unfriendliness.
This was such a disappointment after my first visit in 1993… which may have given me a slight addiction to Russia. Examples of the unfriendliness?
Several, but the most impressive one was walking to a restaurant, where I had seen the menu had pictures – my reasoning being that I would be able to point at the images to order food. (Yes, I know, avoid the ‘tourist traps’ where the menus have photographs of the food on them, but this was about communication and actually eating).
On realising I didn’t speak Russian and none of the staff spoke English, the menu was taken away and I was shown the door.
A pragmatic response, for sure.
In other places I have been to, waiters have been willing to meet me half way and use the photos on the menus.
What would Moscow be like this time?
First task, on arrival at Belorussky Station: getting a SIM card. I found a shop quite easily and went in. The guys on the counter spoke little English but were keen to help and used their phones to translate the conversation.
All was progressing well until I tried to pay and the system crashed.
Second task: cash and finding an ATM/flashpoint. It was in the station but I had to go back through security to even enter the station. This was daunting at first – security to enter a railway station – but I’ve since realised that security is in place at all public buildings including shopping centres and museums.
It’s odd how soon I have grown accustomed to this.
The security officer also directed me to the cash point, once he’d scanned my luggage.
Third task: Getting to my hostel. I had a route planned. I knew which bus to catch… it was cancelled as a result of the City Day road closures (though I didn’t know that at the time).
I had options for an alternative bus and jumped on that… only I caught the one heading the wrong way out of town. It was the second stop before I realised that and the third stop before I spotted the Moscow Dynamo stadium and Metro station.
In the station, a man came to help me because I was visibly confused by the ticket machine – it having not printed a ticket. We bought the ticket and riding down the escalator we chatted. Thankyou, Manchester United… you’re a fantastic ice breaker.
And, Moscow has been like that since I arrived… people willingly and enthusiastically helping me – like the lady who physically took me from her shop to the correct door to get into the building where my hostel was. (The building had three entries, not all clearly identified).
There was a guy in the post office who helped me select the correct queuing ticket for the service counter to be able to send a postcard to my nephew. Diana in the mobile phone store was a star in helping me buy a SIM card and new phone (when it emerged by provider had sold me a dud).
People have also wanted to just chat. Again, my thanks to Manchester United for aiding the conversation with ‘Liverpool’ the doorman at the Metropol .
Getting around the city has been so much easier. Again, this is thanks to football. Apparently there was some kind of international tournament, might have been the FIFA World Cup, or something, held here in 2018.
Thousands of people descending on Moscow to ask for directions.
The city has installed maps on almost every street corner and as well as this, the signage has been added to with the use if the Western alphabet. So you read the Cyrillic street name with as close a version translated beneath it.
The Metro also has added to its signage. (I used the maps to attempt to teach myself to recognise Cyrillic letters and sounds. I think it’s working). The other feature of Metro travel is English announcements.
Being able to read the signage is like getting an improved prescription for glasses – the world has suddenly become clearer.
Does this make it feel a little less Russian? Possibly. Does it make it easier to navigate? Absolutely. Does it dimish the ‘travelling experience’? I don’t think so – it improves my understanding of the city.
However, I do wonder how non-English speaking Muscovites feel about this language colonisation.
I haven’t encountered any unfriendliness – only a willingness to connect.
I spoke to the Red Square Walking Tour guide about the difference in my experiences between 1993, 2011 and 2019.
“Oh,” she said. “In 1993, we were opening up to the world – we wanted to meet people. In 2011, times were hard… people weren’t happy, we didn’t want to be bothered. We were all dealing with our own problems.
“Now, things are better. There have been new developments in the city. Things are good. People are more optimistic”.
*Featured photo: my absolute favourite view in Moscow.