|Our apartment block|
We relocated to Noginsk, a town 40 minutes or so to the east of Moscow, about two weeks ago. We flew into Moscow Domodedovo airport, landing at around midday, after a very pleasant Easyjet flight from Gatwick. It was definitely worth paying the £8 per person surcharge in order to secure priority seats with a larger carry-on baggage allowance and the bonus of avoiding the very lengthy queues at baggage drop-off. Descending the steps onto the tarmac, we were struck by how cold it was. The UK was experiencing something of an Indian summer at the time, so we went from 22 degrees to only three in about three and a half hours! Luckily, we had come prepared and were soon wrapped up in coats and scarves, something we had never had to do in our two years in Vietnam!
We were met at the airport by a representative from my new school and were driven to our accommodation in Noginsk. The journey took far longer than I'd anticipated - about three hours - largely due to the sheer volume of traffic all along the route. On the way, we were pleasantly surprised by the vast areas of forest we drove through - it certainly didn't feel like we were on the outskirts of a major capital city. The snow which began to fall as we drove was not such a pleasant surprise! Our driver assured us it was unseasonably cold and that the large quantities of lying water in the fields was the result of extraordinary amounts of rainfall in recent days and not at all the kind of weather the area should be having in late September!
Now, however, we have been here for a bit longer and many of the initial problems have been solved. The temperature has risen, the heating has kicked in, and we have even had one sunny day, so I am able to be a bit more complimentary about our new home town and I am sure we will enjoy our time here.
- Generally, people don't smile! As someone who smiles a lot, and having come from living in a country where seemingly everyone is super friendly, this came as a bit of a shock. Even when you catch someone's eye in the street, or hold a door open for someone, they don't return your smile. Clearly, when you get to know them, Russian people are as friendly as any others, but this initial apparent sourness is taking some getting used to!
- There are trees everywhere! Everywhere you look is green and forested - it's wonderful! We love to walk, so having so much countryside on our doorstep is a real bonus. Even in the town itself, there are large areas of parkland to wander through.
- The mosquitoes are horrendous! When we were deciding what to bring with us to Russia, and with weight allowance being a prime concern, we discarded all of our mozzie repellents (sprays and plug-ins), deeming them unnecessary in the cold climate we were heading for. How wrong we were! We have never lived anywhere where we have been bitten as much as here! When you are convinced you have killed every single flying thing in the apartment, another mozzie will buzz by your ear! We have now bought every product we can find in our local shops, but none seem effective in our battle against them. We are pinning our hopes on a long, hard winter to kill them off and, in the meantime, have resigned ourselves to more sleepless nights!
- Prices are so much higher than we anticipated. Before coming here, we had read that Moscow was one of the most expensive cities in the world, but that the outlying areas, where we were moving to, were considerably cheaper. We have not found this to be so, particularly with food shopping. I know we've been spoiled by living in Vietnam where everything was very cheap, but prices here are high, even when compared with the UK.
- Noginsk has several striking-looking buildings. The most attractive building in the town is undoubtedly the Epiphany Cathedral which is painted in bright blue, the same blue as the roofs of churches on Greek islands, and which is visible from many places in the town.
- There are a lot of beggars. I know there are beggars in every town and city in the world. The thing that has struck me here, though, is the number of them who are middle-aged or elderly women. Invariably these ladies have an image of the Virgin Mary and a collection receptacle in one hand and are repeatedly making the sign of the cross with the other. Whilst most of these women are standing on the pavement with their heads bowed muttering barely audible prayers as you walk by, there is one lady, who I pass going to and from work each day, who kneels on the ground. She remains motionless in all weathers; on wet days you can see where the rainwater has risen up her clothing and soaked her through. I have to say, I don't see many people giving money, but I guess some must, or else they wouldn't be there day in and day out. There are other beggars in Noginsk, many of them younger men, most of them disabled in some way. My Russian friends tell me that these individuals are controlled by people involved in organised crime, as is the case in so many places in the world, and on no account should you give them any money.
- Noginsk has a really good public transport system. Before coming here, we did some research online about the town and were taken by a YouTube video showing quaint old trams trundling through the streets. We were looking forward to journeys on this nostalgic form of transport. On arrival, however, we discovered that, whilst the rails still exist, the trams themselves no longer run and have been replaced by the ubiquitous 'bendy buses'. There is a very good network of minibuses operating in Noginsk, though. For a flat fare of 25 roubles (about 50 pence), you can go any distance. These marshrutka remind me of the dolmus we used to travel in when we lived in Istanbul, in that passengers pay their fare by passing coins from person to person to the driver. I have to say that, so far, I haven't used these vehicles very much as I prefer to walk to work, but when the harsh winter weather sets in, I'm sure I'll be grateful that they're there! Public transport between Noginsk and Moscow also seems very efficient and reliable with a frequent bus service making the 50-minute journey to a Metro station on the outskirts of the city, from where you can easily access the major sites.
- The people of Noginsk are clearly romantics! There is a small pedestrian suspension bridge over the River Klyazma in the centre of town that is known locally as 'the wedding bridge'. In a similar fashion to some of the bridges in Venice, there is a tradition that local couples fix a padlock inscribed with their names onto the railings of the bridge as a sign of their enduring love. Unlike Venice, where these padlocks are removed at regular intervals by the council, here in Noginsk they remain for many years and so children can see the padlocks placed by their parents and grandparents.
- The architecture of the houses in Noginsk is distinctive. Many of the houses have roofs which wouldn't look out of place in Holland or in an alpine village. I understand that these roof shapes are used so that the snow slides off them easily in winter (flatter roofs would collapse under the weight of fallen snow), but the resulting aesthetic is very pleasing!
- Men swigging from large bottles of coke are everywhere! This is a common sight at all times of day and, initially, I didn't think anything of it, but then, realising that the behaviour of these guys was sometimes rather erratic, it dawned on me that the contents of the bottles was probably at least 50% vodka! This has been confirmed by a Russian colleague. It certainly is a drinking culture here - and a smoking one! It's quite difficult getting used to travelling in taxis (as I have to several times a week when I go to teach at an out-of-town company) which are absolutely filled with cigarette smoke. I generally arrive at my destination feeling distinctly unwell!
- Entrances to shops are decidedly awkward! This might sound strange, but every shopping mall or individual shop seems to have two doors that you have to negotiate to enter. These doors are never in line and when we first arrived, it seemed so unnecessary and it seemed like they'd been designed in this fashion just to frustrate me! I realise now that their purpose is to keep out the worst of the winter weather and to keep the heat into these buildings and, as such, these doors are brilliant!!
- Shops generally have no window displays. I assume that this is a leftover of pre-glasnost days when consumerism was frowned upon, but it is something else for us to get used to. With nothing visual on the outside of a shop to give you a clue, you often end up in shops you have no business being in! So far, we've unwittingly found ourselves in a shop selling nothing but air-conditioning units and another specialising in cosy nightwear for Russian ladies! It makes for interesting shopping trips!
- There are loads of food shops in Noginsk! There is a supermarket or specialist food shop at every turn in the town. Once you find out what's behind the secret doors, you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of food outlets! As I said earlier, we're finding prices very expensive, but the number and variety of shops makes for lengthy shopping excursions as we try to find the best buys.
- The people of Noginsk know how to enjoy themselves! This is especially true on a sunny Sunday afternoon when everyone congregates in the main square, and the pedestrianised streets leading off it, to catch up with friends or spend time with their family and take advantage of some of the activities on offer. These include pony rides, jaunts around the square in a horse and carriage, roller-skating, hiring fabulous electric cars for the toddlers, listening to music, or watching other street entertainment. Another YouTube video we watched before travelling to Russia was this one, showing the people of Noginsk having a great time in the square on New Year's Eve - we're looking forward to being part the celebrations this year!
I don't want anyone to think these observations on Noginsk are criticisms - they're not! They are simply comments on the differences we've found in our first weeks here and, as such, are the reasons we love to live in different countries and are not likely to give up our lives of teaching and travelling any time soon!
You can see more of my pictures of Noginsk here.