That feeling of warmth

So here I am, in Ragout Café and Bar, a popular expat hangout in Moscow, ravenous and in dire need of a glass of Malbec after a hectic Monday at work. I am about fifteen days old in Moscow and I already feel like I’ve been here forever. It’s something about falling into the routine of a daily commute to work and staring at a computer screen for eight straight hours that makes you feel like you’ve been doing it for a lot longer than you actually have.
Let me back up to how I got here. In November of 2010, it was decided that I would move to Moscow for a five month work assignment. Purpose of the assignment: bridge the gap (literal and metaphorical) between the “developed” and the “developing”. As an HR professional at an early stage in my career, this assignment provides the type of enviable perspective and unique exposure that most don’t have in their lifetime. Why Russia? For starters, because it is part of that overused (and thus obnoxious) acronym, BRIC. And I picked Russia over its counterparts around the world because I knew the least about it. It’s that simple. Well, it wasn’t so simple when I was trying to choose a winner between the finalists: China and Russia but Russia won simply because it was the greatest enigma and the more frightening choice. So that means the next four months will be the biggest adventure I have had yet, right?
So far I’m right.
Not because Russia is such a hard place to live. Yes, language is a challenge. A lot of signs are in Cyrillic and don’t always have an English translation accompanying them. English speakers are not hard to come by, but communication is still a struggle. Whether it’s trying to buy a metro pass, explaining that you are vegetarian or that your washer is broken, there are certainly everyday challenges that you face without a conversation grasp of the language.
But I discovered a long time ago that hand gesturing is a universal language and will get the point across in most situations, even if it takes a little longer. Also, in the age of Google Maps and translator apps that can be downloaded onto your trusty smart phone, these seem like petty problems.
Well, you say, forget the language, I bet the weather is unbearable. Wrong again. Contrary to popular belief, Moscovites do not spend all twelve months out of the year peeking out from under a babushka. Fact is, it was colder in Chicago when I left than it was in Moscow when I arrived. Moscow greeted me with sunny blue skies and twenty-something degrees Celsius (in early May) that allowed me to break out a few spring outfits that had been collecting dust.
Then, what, you might ask, is so different about Russia. And my best answer is…nothing and everything. On the surface, Moscow is a very livable city. The Moscow metro is incredibly easy to navigate and chains such as Starbucks, Subway and Le Pain Quotidian provide the same quality they would in London. Fundamentally, in comparison to most developing countries, infrastructure in Moscow (note: I didn’t say Russia) is quite superior.
However, while there is nothing in particular that makes Russia different from any of the other seventeen countries I’ve traveled to, there is something intangible that I think will make my time here a once in a lifetime kind of thing. And that something intangible is what you would call warmth.
I don’t mean temperature, obviously, but a feeling. When you feel warm, you feel comfortable, understood, placated, and serene.
Maybe it’s because strangers don’t smile at you even when you smile at them, or because there are uniformed men at every intersection, something makes you feel on edge in Moscow. I wonder if I’m particularly susceptible to that feeling being a minority. While, there seems to be a sizable Asian population, the city is clearly still grappling with embracing diversity in comparison to say, New York or London. If you compare it to Paris or Rio de Janeiro, there seems to be a certain romanticism that’s missing in Moscow. It is a lively city, but a subdued and managed liveliness compared to Mumbai. Comparisons can be unfair and unnecessary, but sometimes they provide context and verbiage to the intangible feelings you can’t explain.
But there’s a hardiness to the Moscow pulse and spirit which far surpasses New York City, Mumbai, London or any other major city around the world that I have been to. Maybe it’s the weight of a heartbreaking history with almost an entire generation sacrificed to war or the humbling fall of communism and Soviet power, there seems to be a prevailing attitude of …for better or for worse.
Over the next four months, I hope to peel back the layers of this enigmatic city and uncover my own source of warmth from beneath these layers.
Blog Comments

I have just moved to Moscow at the beginning of May from Chicago, so reading your blog is very interesting! Maybe if we both have time we can meet up and talk about our experiences?

Very interesting to see Moscow from the eyes of a newcomer! I'll be following your blog with interest!

Mariyah and Jennifer, thanks for your interest!!

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