The British Women’s Club

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How did the British Women’s club start in Moscow?
Fiona Johnston: It is quite young, it was set up in 2000. When British women arrive here they may need help and support from each other to understand basic things like where to shop for food, information about schools and to get to know other British ladies. Mainly it is a help group, because it can be quite a shock settling here if you don’t speak Russian.

Una Allan: And it is good to meet other British expats who have been through all the pitfalls and are ready to help.

Fiona Johnston: Women generally introduce themselves before they move to Moscow. And we (consult) let the ladies know on what is going on in the city. We get their telephone numbers, addresses, than meet women all the time and participate in their lives.

Fiona, how did you take on the responsibility to run the British Women’s Club?
Fiona Johnston: I was already the membership secretary of the BWC when the last chairwoman had to leave for family reasons. I stepped up and said “I can do it!” I’ve lived in different countries all over the world for quite a long time: South Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and now I am in Moscow. I’ve been here for two and a half years. A lot of the members are in the same situation.

Do you often meet couples from the places you lived in here in Moscow?
Una Allan: Sometimes we find people again, that’s a fun part of living abroad. The British Club is not as big as the International Women’s Club. It has maybe 90 members but it is very friendly. There is a split between those ladies who don’t have children with them and live in the centre, and those who have kids and live in the suburbs like Rosinka or Serebrennai Bor near where the schools are. They have to be at home earlier to meet children after the classes.

Who can join the club?
Fiona Johnston: As long as you have a British passport yourself or you married to somebody who does, you can become the member of BWC. We have quite a few Russian wives who are members. It is not because we welcome our nationality only, we are confined by the rules of how the embassy works. Once a month we hold our monthly meeting there.
Una Allan: – But we welcome anyone else to the coffee mornings which are held every Tuesday.

Who plans the activities of the BWC?
Fiona Johnston: We have a committee with ten members. We meet once a month and make decisions about what we are going to do during the months ahead. It is a kind of a job we do together. Una is responsible for the newsletter and the website. Our Membership Secretary looks after everybody’s contact information: emails, telephone numbers. There is another lady who is our treasurer and deals with all the finances. We have a charity’s coordinator and another member who runs the family network, which is specifically important for young mums with children.

Una Allan: We also have two activity coordinators who are responsible for events throughout the year. Our major activities are planned almost six months ahead. The ladies themselves decided what they want to do. This month, for example, we are concentrating on museums.

Fiona Johnston: We apply for help to travel agencies like ‘British Bridge to Moscow’, and ‘Patriarchy Dom’. They always give us an English-speaking guide. Moscow is especially nice and quiet in summer. When the schools close and everybody goes to the dacha we have Moscow to ourselves again. We enjoy it.

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What are your favourite places in Moscow?

Fiona Johnston: The Banya. We have been a few times there and really like these places.

I love the ballet and going to the theatre, but I don’t go because I can’t speak Russian which is a shame. My husband is very keen on classical music, so we go to the ?haikovsky concert hall quite a lot. I love the Kremlin, the Novodevichy Monastery; the iconic places that everybody recognizes.

Una Allan: They never disappoint. You go to Red Square and it is fantastic! When I saw Time Square in New York I was a little disillusioned.

Fiona Johnston: We remember television footage of Russia during the Soviet Era when the country was almost closed to foreigners. I never dreamt as a child or as a teenager that I would ever be allowed to visit Russia. For us it was and it still is something extra special and exotic.

Una Allan: I enjoy the winter so much, especially when the first snow comes and everything is white and crystal.

Fiona Johnston: I organise cross country skiing for the International Women’s Club, which is open to the all ladies of the British Club as well. We don’t do sports specifically within the BWC.

Is it difficult to bring your culture in Russia? Have Russians adopted any aspects of British culture?
Fiona Johnston: The British pubs! There is one across the road from my apartment (smiling).
Una Allan: There is a lot of tea everywhere. We feel very home drinking tea.

british-women2What do you think about the Russian mentality?
Fiona Johnston: I find some aspects of Russian culture a bit challenging. Moscow seems bigger than London. To use public transport is hard from the point of the language and the crowds. For example in the metro sometimes there is a lot of elbows pushing on the escalators. Taxi drivers don’t speak English.
Una Allan: We are trying to learn Russian, but, it is useless. I for one am not very good. It is not an easy language to learn, predominantly because of the alphabet. We have a few Russian speakers in our group. Some of our ladies studied Russian at university, which is a great help for the rest of us. I think it is different for people who travel a lot and for those who are here on a first posting.
Fiona Johnston: I love Moscow. It will go on my list of one of my favourite places to live. People are friendly. Quite often when you are at home you expect Russians to be closed. In my opinion they are quite Scottish. I relax with Russians and that aspect doesn’t worry me anymore. Especially I like the younger generation, who are very friendly and want to practice their English on us.

Can you share with your experiences of communicating with strangers?
Una Allan: I can only remember positive experiences. Once I was wearing a golden bangle, which fell off. A Russian man saw this and gave me it back to me when I didn’t even know that I had lost it. It was a very nice gesture.
Fiona Johnston: When I go to the bigger shops to buy something, the people behind the till sometimes can be not very friendly but I usually find them very helpful and we usually end up laughing because I’ve ordered too many of something or not the right things because my Russian is not good enough.
Una Allan: Not long ago, we went to a bread shop to buy two loaves of bread. I was trying to find 10 rubles in my pockets. As usual the shop had no change and the man behind us laughed and gave us the money.

Are Russian men gentlemen?
Fiona Johnston: I met only one ‘ungentleman’ in Russia. When I was cross-country skiing, a man came up behind me, pushed me from behind and I went face first down into the snow. Then he stood and berated me. I just looked at him. But that was very unusual. Normally if I carry a suitcase someone always helps me. I don’t have problems. Russians sometimes have false ideas just how polite English men are. There are plenty of men in the UK who don’t hold the door open for you. We are not such a perfect land of manners as you think.

Where do you recommend to go to for tea or a meal?
Fiona Johnston: In one of our trips we went for afternoon tea at the Kempinsky hotel which was very good. The Swedish chef learnt the tradition of the British afternoon tea in London. The baking, the sandwiches and the tea, everything was very British!
Una Allan: My favorite place is Vet café. That reminds me of Vietnam where I used to live.
Fiona Johnston: There are many good restaurants in Russia. I like Ragout, and the Fosiano café. But eating out in Moscow is considerably more expensive than in London. I often wonder how average Muscovites cope with the prices. I have never been to the nightclubs here but I heard that they can be overpriced too. You pay thousands just to get the table.

How do you spend your time here?
Fiona Johnston: My weeks are full. I go to a yoga studio, play bridge, ski, I organize the BWC. I am a part of a group of ladies of the International Women’s Club who do voluntary English conversations at Speransky hospital. Friday is my day-off. I have two children. My elder son lives and works in London. My other son studies in Oxford. My children come once a year but I go home five times a year, maybe even more because the UK is so near.

Una Allan: I have two children too. My daughter works, my son studies at Portsmouth University. I also go home quite often. You can get anywhere to the world from Moscow. I am a housekeeper of many years standing. I help Fiona with the BWC, do the website, play bridge and sing with The Moscow Mellow Divas twice a week. We have two concerts coming up in June.

Fiona Johnston: It is really hard to get a job in Moscow because most countries don’t allow us to work. The visa is done on the basis that your husband is the employee and I was forbidden to work in America, Venezuela and Colombia. What would I be if I were working here? My profession is a nurse. I worked in the UK, in South Asia before I had children. The restrictions in working are one of the reasons why we try to fill our day with useful, not frivolous things.

What do you think about Russian women?
Fiona Johnston: They have their own mind and go with it. British women are the same.