Simon Green

Why am I here in Moscow? Why am I still living and working here and not in the UK after more than 15 years? My good friend, Lyubov Zolotova, recently coerced me into delivering a presentation on precisely this, as part of a trilogy of talks she had organized called: “Meetings with expats- a different point of view.” This was hosted by the illustrious Zil Cultural Center which is a major art/cultural area in Moscow.

Prior to this, the audience had been treated to an American, followed by an Italian speaker, each with contrasting styles and a different story to tell. When Lyubov approached me, I had considerable reticence, but she is rather beguiling and persuasive, maintaining that people here are fascinated with all things British, and what better than to be confronted with a well-educated person with perfect Oxford English? Come on, she insisted, there will only be a few people, and they’re dying to hear you! I capitulated.

Fast forward to June 10 and it found me confronted by a full house comprising of about 100 people in eager anticipation of what was to come- not quite what was promised. Lyubov’s role was that of sequential translator, performed like the true pro she is, but unbeknownst to us at the time, around two thirds of the audience possessed a good knowledge of English. After an introduction about my past peccadillos, mentioning en passant that I had been to 74 countries and lived in around 20, which drew gasps from said audience, I then proceeded into the topic proper.

I recounted, to much mirth, about my brief foray into the banking world which was utter ennui and predictably ended in tears, much to my mother’s chagrin, resulting in my seeking a life abroad. I explained the UK’s crippling tax system compared to a paltry 13% here as opposed to a top end of 50% plus 6% National Insurance- another question put to me at the end. Sadly it seemed that even Russians were all too familiar with the sad story of our woeful and notorious health service. I then compared the effectively negligible utility bills here to the UK’s council tax and other bills which also prompted murmurs of incredulity.

I then explored transport comparisons: I pay a meagre 2,000 rubles a month for the metro including bus and tram rides (about 27 pounds in British parlance) compared to what I would have to pay today to commute to London from Kent which is just over an hour’s journey, panning out at around 40,000 rubles per month including the Underground and parking costs. Most families in the countryside need 2 cars, and with petrol costing 2.5 times that of here, it’s isn’t cheap to run them. I then detailed that a standard mortgage for your house (3 bedroom with small garden is the norm) usually runs over 30 years and is a millstone around your neck; and together with the prerequisite 2.5 children and a black labrador that Mr and Mrs Average tend to have, this sadly renders many people into a negative equity situation each month.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, the fact is that 80% of the population are waiting for their salary each month, which is coupled with the dreaded credit card syndrome that most families have become dependant on. These cards offer astronomical APR’s to compound one’s misery, made worse by the fact that one only has to repay a minimum of 5% each month which invariably increases the balance owing. A recent survey concluded that the average family possess 6 credit cards with an average debt of around £9,000 excluding the mortgage. At this point the audience were stunned into mesmeric silence.

Next up I compared how important families are to Russians, with grandparents heavily involved in their grandchildren’s upbringing thus enabling both parents to work. This doesn’t happen in the UK as grandparents are usually living far away and constantly under threat of being moved into an old people’s home by their offspring- not exactly cheap either! I did concede that Britain is good at offering part-time work for young mothers from 09.00-3.00 which isn’t something I’ve evidenced here much to date. I then suggested a major reason for my being here was that in the UK if you’re over 40 it’s difficult to score a good job unless you’ve carved out a career with the likes of PWC; but it’s even harder when you’re over 50 as you’re pretty much consigned to the scrapheap. On the other hand, here in Moscow you can reinvent yourself like yours truly and become a teacher!

I gave people a good giggle when discussing our regimentality such as lunch is always at 1.00 or 1.30 latest, no matter what, then moved into cultural differences comparing Russians who speak very directly whereas we tend to camouflage what we say so as not to upset people. Examples given, which produced much laughter, included saying something is “quite good” which really means quite awful, but if we deem something to be “not bad” we’re actually highly impressed! Also I explained if we’re angry about something it’s usually short lived, but if we tell someone we’re slightly disappointed, it’s the death knell for the unwitting recipient. Following on from there I compared the format of business meetings both here and in Britain: In the UK, USA and much of Europe, 10 minutes small talk is de rigeur, but here in Russia it’s straight down to business, but if they like you and are anticipating a partnership, you’re expected to go down to the cafe with them to conclude the meeting which obviously involves a few toasts- a big no-no where I come from.

A frenetic 30 minute Q&A session ensued with a whole potpourri of questions fired at me, with one erudite and elderly gentleman enquiring if I had read Boris Johnson’s book on Churchill to which I confessed I hadn’t. However, this gave me a beautiful segue to demonstrate British humour at its best:-

“Bernard Shaw’s new play in London was opening, so he sent out numerous invitations to high society including a certain Winston Churchill, who opened it and saw: Winston, please come to the opening of my new play, Pygmalion, bring a friend- if you have one! Winston duly sent back his rely saying: Sorry Bernard, I can’t come to the opening night, but would love to come to the second night- if there is one!!

It brought the house down and subsequently the curtain, and concluded a wonderful evening full of camaraderie, which is what I’ve come to expect from living here so long.

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