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Polly Barks, Moscow

Who are you?

My name is Polly Barks, and I’m a 24-year-old English teacher. I’m originally from a tiny Northern Virginia town about an hour away from Washington, D.C. I attended university at Beloit College in Beloit, WI. I graduated in 2010 and majored in Russian Studies and International Relations.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

I have been living and teaching English in Moscow, Russia for the past three years. Like many Americans, I had a lot of trouble finding a job after university. I decided that, since I had studied Russian throughout university (and briefly studied in Kaliningrad, Russia), I would take a job in Moscow.Almost 100 percent of the jobs available in Moscow (bar high-level executive jobs, which are out of reach for the average 20-something) are either nannying or English teaching related. I chose to begin teaching at a large school and loved Russia so much, I just never left.

How did you find somewhere to live?

One of the great things about signing a contract with a large English school (Language Link or English First are the big two), is that they provide housing for you. It may not be the greatest apartment ever, but remember – this is Moscow and even a tiny flat far from the center can be 30,000 rubles ($1000) per month!

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After my first year in Moscow, I left a large school to go to a better, higher-paying small school. They did not provide housing, but usually these schools offer some support. Expect and budget to use an agent – most likely, you’ll pay them a month’s worth of rent in exchange for their services. It’s expensive but, particularly if you don’t speak Russian, it’s a necessity. I’ve worked with and without agents, to mixed results for both methods. Remember, it’s Russia: there are laws, but they aren’t always respected.

Are there many other expats in your area?

In Moscow, there are expats galore, as well as a host of Russians ready and willing to speak in English. There are expat clubs, get-togethers, and even bars dedicated to foreigners abroad. If you’re an expat (particularly an English-speaking one), you’ll never be far from fellow patriots.

Note that once you move beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg, the number of expats plummets to nearly zero very quickly.

What do you like about life where you are?

For me, Moscow is wonderful place to live while in my 20s. Its night life is incredible and there’s so much to see culturally, politically, and historically. And, of course, the money to living expenses ratio is very good, as long as you don’t get too caught up in the very easy trap of spending way too much money.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

I can only speak to Moscow, as the rest of Russia is significantly different.

Specific to Moscow, living expenses are my biggest dislike. Real estate is prohibitively expensive, and eating or going out will cost you easily upwards of 3000 rubles ($100) if you’re not very careful.

Other dislikes? The amount of travel you’ll most likely do is quite a lot. The metro is wonderful, but an hour commute is an hour commute. And I truly pity you if your commute includes a bus or marshrutka (shared taxi). The legendary Moscow traffic jams are as bad as they say, if not worse.

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?

The biggest cultural difference between Russia and the United States emerges when I see Moscow’s attempts to modernize juxtaposed against old Soviet holdovers. This phenomenon can be literally seen on any street – brand new, western-style apartment or office buildings tower over squat, grey Soviet buildings. However, even more than that, the culture itself is a strange mixture that seems almost unintelligible to foreigners.

Growing up in a small town in America, I equated cultural conservatism with small towns and more liberal mindsets with big cities. But in Moscow, one of the largest cities in the world, there remains a large culture of conservatism that is totally at odds with the city’s modern appearance. Gleaming, all-glass office buildings still use filing cabinets instead of storing documents electronically. Young men blasting rap music and idolizing 50 Cent have no problem hurling racist remarks at anyone dark-skinned. Some of the most expensive cars in the world can’t be driven out of their gated communities because the roads have too many potholes.

Moscow is a fascinating and frustrating city that you can either love or hate, specifically because of this cultural confusion. It’s quite unlike anywhere. Most people who have left Moscow did so because they thought they were coming to work in Europe, whereas Russia is something totally unique.

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

Do your research. All the problems you may face in Russia seem so much easier if you have people you can trust. Do your due diligence about whatever company, school, or family you’ll take a job from. With a steady, dependable job and a few good friends, Moscow can be a wonderful place.

Polly shares more information about life in Moscow through her blog pollyheath.wordpress.com.

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