Sarah: Invisible in Moscow
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Moscow, etc.
I’m a performer, writer and teacher from the UK who landed in Moscow unexpectedly when I threw caution to the wind and sold almost everything I owned and set off on a big adventure. I answered an advertisement almost 10 years ago for a teacher at a school in Moscow, and I’m still here.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I have always kept a notebook and when I moved to Moscow I found myself writing – many, many times – that I had the sensation of becoming invisible. Then I developed a kind of persona as the ‘invisible woman’ and found her voice was fun to write in as she moved silently around the city, peering into tiny cracks and corners of the lives of people that she saw.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
A favorite blog entry of mine is called A Heart in Two Lands, which begins to try to articulate the feeling of living in one place and still having part of your heart and soul in another: an experience that I believe is quite common to expats wherever they live. Then A Walk on the Wild Side is a description of some local characters and typical types on the streets of Moscow and is a good example of how weird, sad and funny everyday life here can be at times. Then there’s my original post, the one that started the whole story, An Invisible Woman in Moscow, because it takes me right back to when I first arrived and explores those initial feelings and the phenomenon of being ‘invisible’. I have since learned that the best way to be suddenly, radically, visible on the streets of Moscow is to be pregnant.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Moscow differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Well, the blog tells of many ways in which my life differs from that back in Britain (you’ll notice I couldn’t bring myself to write the word “home” there) but culture shock is fascinating, and I write about it a lot. What surprised me the most when I first came here was the overwhelming feeling that I had finally woken up – as if I had been asleep for a hundred years and suddenly came alive the instant I arrived in Moscow. That might seem a bit poetic, but that feeling has really not left me, and I’ll have been here for a decade in 2015. Yes, it is possible to feel amazingly awake, aware and alive and seem to have become invisible all at the same time. Somehow this city is magnetic; and it either draws you powerfully in, or flings you out. Either way, it seems a hard place to leave.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Moscow? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I was not at all prepared, and I’m really not sure how I could have been. Perhaps it’s not possible to prepare yourself to live in another culture. I think I would have done everything exactly the same had I known what I know now because culture shock is called ‘shock’ for a reason. That’s what jolted me awake and that’s exactly what I needed at the time.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
Of course I’ve often had mad moments – everything from trying to buy five potatoes and staggering home under five kilos of spuds to accidentally landing a seven-foot tall security guard at the Bolshoi Theatre in big trouble one Christmas Eve…
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Moscow?
- Learn the Cyrillic alphabet before you come if you can, (really helps on the metro) but don’t worry too much about the pronunciation of it because you can’t get that right until you get here.
- When a group of Russian guys hear you speaking English with your friends in a bar and bring vodka over to your table, find a way to tip every other shot into a plant pot. Seriously.
- Leave your developed and refined sense of personal space behind at the airport.
How is the expat community in Moscow? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
For sure you need friends close by who are also expats when you live abroad, especially in the first year or so, and there is a good crowd here (working with them helps). But I was always aware that I wanted a certain depth of connection and so I made a conscious effort not to spend all my time in expat circles so as not to live in a culture-bubble feeling isolated from the place I was actually living in. The upshot of that attitude is that I am now married to a Russian, have Russian and Ukrainian in-laws and a bilingual child, so this approach should be handled with care!
How would you summarize your expat life in Moscow in a single, catchy sentence?
Living in Moscow still fills me with endless awe: it amazes me, challenges me and drives me to keep learning.