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Introducing The Expat Lexicon! The “S” Words

By May 26, 2011June 1st, 2017Uncategorized

As my friends, fans,  and family know, I like jobs I can do in my pajamas and one thing I do for the occasional crust is brief expats who are setting off to Moscow for work.  I have a very serious and thorough outline and I do a nice job if I do say so myself.   There are, however, a few points I tend to leave out of a general briefing.  In this series of posts, I’ll be grouping these important concepts about expat life into alphabetical clusters with some helpful links to other resources.  I encourage you to submit your own questions about expat life in Moscow!


It’s all about the money.  That’s why you are here after all, and don’t let on that this isn’t a hardship post.  Of course it is:  peanut butter costs 9 bucks a jar and there is a 5-month lag to watch Celebrity Apprentice.   But the “The Package” as expats refer to it includes all kinds of perks:  an all expense-paid look-see visit before you move, and all-expense paid move when you do featuring a sea container big enough to fit a year’s worth of Sam’s Club Mac&Cheese boxes, housing, insurance, insurance that ensures your insurance, pet relocation, assimilation training for you and your pet, schooling, trips home (to stock up on more Sam’s Club Mac &Cheese), a guaranteed bonus.


Location, location, location.  Are you poshly situated on the banks of Patriarch Ponds (soon to be renamed Cadaver Pond) or have you chosen the more hygienic confines of Rosinka or Pokrovsky Hills, where your neighbors are People Like You and not slightly crazy octogenarians in worn out tapki who hurl insults at you, or a scary beezinessmeyn from Moldova and his 17-year twin girlfriends.   Are you horrified by the cost of your rental?  Do you know the layout of IKEA by heart? You are outraged when the rent goes up, and you know you are really entrenched when you stop thinking you can get one up on the landlord.  You can’t.


Suddenly, you are the hero of your own Masterpiece Theatre special.  There are servants everywhere!  Someone drives you around, someone else drives your spouse around, and a third guy may even drive your kids around.   A colorful but increasingly tedious woman cleans your home, sighing heavily about the good old days when she worked for a Soviet Research Institute and had a three-week voucher to a sanatorium each summer.  She often suffers from a curious thing called “pressure” from the “magnetic field.”  You are working up the courage to fire her and get a string of Filipinos in to replace her.


Keeping your children busy, productive, occupied, and off the streets is a full-time job for an expat.    If you have school-aged children, you’ve probably gone for the “All Inclusive” option of an international school with bonus points if you’ve chosen to live adjacent to it.  Good choice:  everything including your own social life is under one roof.  You will never be lonely again.  Unless of course, your child is unhappy at the international school, in which case, you are out of luck.  If you have teenagers, I strongly advocate a lengthy and serious consideration of “American Boarding Schools” or a similar publication from your home country.


If this is your first posting abroad, you may be disconcerted by the amount of security measures in place:  metal detectors to enter shopping malls, armed guards at your local supermarket, and the bewildering rigmarole of getting a “propusk” or pass to any building in the city.   Relax.  Remember Russia is a human resources rich country and the entire male population serves in the army, making them fit for only one thing when they get out:  security services.


Moscow expats like their tipple.   Whether it’s cocktails on the patio at Scandinavia or vodka at the banya, gird your liver for the onslaught of alcohol to come.   Quantity, not quality, is what counts in Moscow, where a mediocre bottle Cru d’Ordinary Cheap and Cheerful Australian Chardonnay retailing in your home country for $7.99 and available at every newsagent, needs to be specially ordered and costs up to $60.00.   None of this deters Moscow expats, some of whom even take a liking to the aluminum tins of pre-mixed Gin Tonic sold at kiosks throughout the city.  Don’t knock them ‘til you’ve tried them, and try them as the locals do:  while riding public transportation.


Relax.  All those ambulances are just moonlighting as traffic jam plows, and all those blue lights are just show-off minigarchs.  No emergency.  The girls at Night-Flight?  Not so much.


Where oh where do you buy peanut butter?  (Azbukha Vkusa) Or toilet bowl cleaner? (Metro)  Can you get Vanilla Extract in Moscow? (No) Is there any store that sells three holes US Letter Sized paper? (huh?) Where do you buy a bathing suit or clothes that are in the size 12 and up range ( of course…what did you think?) Finding things in Moscow is a full-time job for a trailing spouse, or what a recent Expat Forum more charmingly renamed the “lovepats.”   Keep your ear to the ground; post your questions on Facebook.  Be ready to improvise.   Take many many many empty suitcases home on holiday.

Social Life:  

A big part of being an expat is the social life.  This is primarily carried out with other expats at large events held to raise money for various good causes.  This is when “The Package” begins to make sense.  You are charged an arm and a leg to attend, then shell out the other arm and your other leg to purchase way too many raffle tickets for a chance to win something you neither want nor need (such as a weekend at the Marriott Grand Hotel on Tverskaya Street).  Hours of fun.  You may choose to join a book club, or go native and visit a dacha.  Whatever you do, get out there and meet people.  Even if you have to help unpack 14,000 Russian Christmas tree ornaments, or go to divine service. Otherwise, the cleaning lady will drive you nuts.


Ah…vacations!  Before you even unpack one suitcase, check with the HR people who are in charge of you about all the public holidays in Russia.  You don’t want to be caught wondering where everyone is during the first week in May, November, or January.  Nor do you want to miss the Saturday that turns out to be a working day.    Once you’ve got that clear, you have a wonderful opportunity to discover the joys of package holidaying a la Russe in Turkey, Egypt, and the UAE for the low, low price of less than $500 p/p and the high, high cost of mental anguish when you take your first (and last) charter flight to the sunny destination.  Live and learn, friends, live and learn.


No “Life in Moscow” piece could be complete without this “S” word.  Suffice it to say that attitudes about sex are different abroad, particularly those held by the typing pool at the better firms.   And then there are the rumors of trampoline sex in the gated communities…true or false?  Hmmm…

Hi There Readers!

Can you think of other “S” words that are important to life in the expat lane?  Questions about life in Russia? Curious or outraged by what you read here?  Hit the comment button and weigh in, won’t you?


  • Cinderella says:

    Skippy loves “S” words

  • TGP says:

    семечки (ubiquitous at futbol matches), сосиски (the Russian cultural equivalent of an Egg McMuffin), смуглая (as in девушка. At least an important S-word down here in Krasnodar), сука (no need to translate but good to know as the word forms a sort of ambient buzz all around), Сочи (perhaps the most important S-word for Russia over next 7 years), солянка (easily all expats favorite soup), сала (a guilty pleasure impossible to explain to friends back home), сигареты (an easy habit to pick-up), and finally… спокойной ночи )))

  • Skippy is, of course, # 11!!

  • Wow. Just Wow. I feel a guest blogger has arrived! Fancy taking on the “Q” words TGP?

  • TGP says:

    lol ))) Loving your blog!! Hope to start writing again soon on mine (lazy American syndrome down here).

  • Stephanie says:

    Outstanding. Or rather, sensational.

  • Marina Vytovtova says:

    Summer-houses or dacha’s; Sport (something impossible to participate in in Russia for the most part); swimming in Serebryany Bor – not recommended but often attempted, particularly in combination with spirits; mysterious Russian Soul – an artifact of Russian nationalism that allows the generally intelligent population to compensate for various insecurities. Great post! Going to Russia tomorrow. Peanut butter anyone?

  • Potty Mummy says:

    I can’t understand why this doesn’t form an integral part of your expat briefings document; it’s certainly going to form one of mine from now on! (See you after the 16th!) PMx

  • Ruth says:

    Great post! Your blog will help me stay sane as I get ready to move over there:)

  • Ruth says:

    oh but before I head over there in August, a quick trip home to Chi-town to load up on Sweets – oreos, chocolate chips…

  • Marilyn says:

    SNOW!!.. This may sound like a no-brainer, but living in a area where a few inches can close the federal government, county schools, and wipe out grocery store shelves….the winter forecasts for Moscow seem to read daily with “S” or “SF”. So…..????

  • Marina Vytovtova says:

    Hi Ruth, I am one of the readers. I saw that you are moving to Moscow in August and I just wanted to share that I find Samotechnaya area great from the standpoint of quality of life. I am Russian from Tula who now lives in NY and prior to my move to the States I lived in Moscow in five different areas. I now am visiting in Moscow for a month and am very impressed with this part of Moscow from the standpoint of location, traffic, transport, parks, shopping and the quality of life in general. I actually am able to jog here (there are three great parks all in walking distance – one with affordable tennis courts). I am somewhat shocked because this is so much better than the silly Patriarshi ponds (I used to live there) and practically every other place I lived before. Anyway, check it out when you move.

  • Marina Vytovtova says:

    One more comment from me. I am just so impressed with the area where I am staying during this visit – I wanted to share. I am a Russian who lived in Moscow for nine years before moving to the States (where I lived in three different states for the last nine years). During my time in Moscow I lived in five different areas including near Patriarshi ponds and Frunzenskaya naberezhnaya – areas often preferred by some expats. I am here for the first time with my son and for the first time on Samotechnaya street, in the area between Tsvetnoy Bulvar and Prospect Mira subway stations. We live closer to Tsvetnoy Bulvar. I have to say I love it! We have three parks (one actually with affordable tennis courts and tennis school), multiple clean and nice playgrounds, Durova circus geared towards smaller kids, and puppet theater – all in very short walking distance. I actually started jogging here – so I have to take my words about sport in a previous post back! And shopping and parking are pretty easy too, not to mention being in short walking distance to subway. I am impressed and would recommend this area to anyone moving to Moscow, particularly with kids!

  • Marina,
    Thanks so much for the comment– I love that part of Moscow as well. So nice to know you and your son enjoyed all the lovely enclaves in that charming part of the city! Let me know next time you are over and we’ll have a coffee!

  • Vanilla extract, Ruth. And lots of it!

  • Ella says:

    Do not forget about all kinds of “spravki”.

  • Vanessa says:

    Ahh, this version of expat life is so different than mine. 🙂 Servants? What? I don’t have room for them in my kommunalka. 😉 Whenever I read expat blogs I always want to start my own, about life in Russia minus a six-figure salary. But then again, at least I don’t have to go to fundraising events!

  • Have to add that one, of course. SNOW.
    I’m guessing Marilyn lives in….DC? Maybe?

  • Vanessa,
    We want the kommunalka story! How did you get there?

  • Marilyn says:

    Across the “border” in Maryland!

  • Ira says:

    I do have to say, while I otherwise enjoy what I’ve read so far your blog, that Russian/Filipino comment was, you know.. a tad odd. To put it mildly.

    Re: salary+package, at one point I was a General Manager’s assistant in one of the international company branches here in the South of Russia, he was an expat and so were his wife and kid. I must say that was a very ungrateful job. I went in expecting to be, in accordance with the job title/description, an assistant/interpreter/translator, and I ended up being all of that plus more. I shudder when I remember how I used to go to their residence to help the wife talk to the “gardner” (who was a maintenane guy in reality), help her get rid of the mice in the attic (they live in a cottage residence, close to some fields), find a nanny, talk to the nanny every day about baby problems, talk to the doctor, find a kindergarden, organize the work of electricians, “fixers” for their home, book tickets for wife+baby, provide all sorts of entertainment options for the wife and other expat wives and so on. I had a good relationship with all 3 members of the family, but I did hate having to do something so.. domestic, I guess, that was not part of my duties by a long shot. I have to say the wife was mean/bitchy to a lot of people, she thought of herself as the first lady and thought all Russians were way less cool than her, an Expat, however she was never mean to me, although she made my life a bit of a hell that I did not sign up for. So yeah, I guess what I mean here is, it’s nice having those expat benefits, but sometimes other people pay a bit of a price for it (not only talking about myself of course, all above mentioned people as well). Some of her wishes were based on her life in her homeland and some on her life in other countries, for example, she wanted a garden facility “like in Thailand”, service “like in the Philippines”, etc. and sadly had no understanding that sometimes certain things are impossible to have in certain locations (and on certain budgets).

    • jennifer says:


      This is a very interesting story and one with which I am somewhat familiar on both sides of the fence. As I spend more and more time in Russia, however, I’m beginning to feel that there are two ways to deal with Russians who work for yo: clueless helpless expat or authoritarian despot and that any hybrid of this doesn’t work.

      For what that’s worth.


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