Cafeterias, carrots, and the art of radiator drying

Authored by:
Caroline F.

When you think about preparing to study abroad, many things probably come to mind: what clothes to bring, arranging travel insurance and plane tickets, choosing classes or internships. These were just a few of the things swirling around in my head before leaving for Moscow this August.

But although those things ended up being important, after a month in Russia I'll say this: some of the most notable differences between Moscow and the States have been far more mundane. I didn't think to prepare for these things -- and even if I had wanted to, I couldn't have. Why? Because when you google "tips for studying abroad," things like "doing laundry" probably aren't the top results.

It's my hope that this blog post can serve to fill that gap. In it, I'll address three easily overlooked differences that, if you know to expect them, can make everyday life a whole lot easier.

First: food.

By "food," I don't mean culinary differences. Many people already know to expect their palate to change when transported to the land of meat and potatoes. Plus, Moscow is such an international city that if you're craving something -- Italian, Chinese, Burger King -- you can probably find it (especially the Burger King).

Rather, the biggest food-related difference between any U.S. university and MGIMO (where CIEE Moscow students are enrolled) is the meal plan -- or lack thereof.

MGIMO has a three-story cafeteria (столовая) and several small cafes in its main academic building; there's also a cafe in the on-campus Dorm (общежитие) No. 2, where most of the international and exchange students live. But although some of these eateries have trays and serving lines like a typical U.S. cafeteria, there's no university-wide swipe or dining dollars system. Rather, you pay a la carte right after picking your food, with cash or credit card.

When you think about it, though, not having a meal plan makes sense. Unlike in the U.S., most MGIMO students don't live on or close to campus. Muscovite students usually live at home, and Russian students not from Moscow live in off-campus dorms that can take a good hour to get to. Most undergrads go home by four (when classes end) or six (when clubs end). As such, they don't need an unlimited meal plan or dining dollars; they can choose what they want to buy, if anything.

This is also why the hours when you can buy food are what they are. The cafeteria closes at six; the dorm cafe closes at nine or ten. There are no on-campus convenience stores open until midnight, and everything except the dorm cafe is closed on Sundays.

For exchange students, this system has both pluses and minuses. Although in the U.S. it's nice to be able to swipe into the dining hall and take as much food as you want, here I know exactly what I'm paying for, and I don't feel like I'm wasting money if I eat out rather than at the cafeteria. I can also use the communal kitchens in the dorms, which both keeps food costs down and helps you meet people.

("People" being everyone from the guy frying premade grocery store blini on a Sunday morning to the guy who offered me handmade plov in the elevator last night -- cooking it, he said, is the only thing that relaxes him).

Second: grocery stores.

Although not unheard of, mega supermarkets like Walmart and Target are much less common in Russia. A typical neighborhood grocery has food, alcohol, and an aisle or two of home products like soap and paper towels.

Some other differences:

  • Produce must be weighed and labeled with a sticker before check-out.
  • Things like potatoes and carrots are astonishingly cheap. There is also a semi-significant price difference between washed and unwashed carrots.
  • In general, food comes in smaller sizes than in the U.S. In the words of my roommate: "Bulk is not really a thing." Yogurt, for example, is available almost exclusively in single-serve containers; chips are usually packaged in single-size bags. Shredded cheese comes in a package that will top perhaps seven servings of pasta.
  • Crunchy, savory snack foods like crackers are hard to find. Most crunchy items are sweet -- cookies or biscuits.
  • Plastic bags are available only at extra cost ("Пакет нужен?"). I always bring a tote bag when going grocery shopping to save a few extra rubles.

Third: laundry.

Laundry is laundry is laundry; the basics are the same everywhere. However, unlike in (most) U.S. universities, at MGIMO there is someone to walk you through those basics if you need it -- Olga, the laundry room attendant.

Laundry is free, as long as you provide your own detergent. The washing machines are probably smaller than those in the U.S., but can easily handle a week's worth of clothes.

The biggest difference? No dryers.

Technically, there are two dryers in the laundry room at MGIMO. But Olga is very stingy about who uses them, and for what. Regular clothes should be hung to dry on hangers or a drying rack in your room. The radiator, if it's in a convenient place, is prime real estate for things like socks. The dryers are only for heavy things like bath towels and jeans, and only if you ask.

There are a myriad of differences between life in Russia and the U.S., and this post only begins to scratch the surface. Pages could be dedicated to differences in academic life and scheduling, to say nothing of tips for personal interactions. But hopefully this serves to show a starting point -- sometimes, it's the little things that make all the difference.

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