Where are you from, what are you studying here?
Iâm from Dublin in Ireland, I am a student at Trinity College on an exchange programme, taking Russian and Spanish. Iâm with the âRussian For Foreignersâ students when studying Russian, but with the Russians who are studying Spanish. The Spanish lessons are very good for my Russian as well, because I am translating from Spanish to Russian all the time, and not through English, which is a bit of a challenge for me. But the teacher is very kind.
You live in the âobshezhitieâ (student hostel)?
Yes, I was told horror stories about it before I came here from the people who had been on the previous exchange programme. I was expecting to be living in a cardboard box with cockroaches. Iâve actually got quite a nice apartment. They have set it up quite well, so that most of the foreigners are in the same part of the building. Because Iâm on an exchange programme, I donât have to pay for accommodation at all which is fantastic. The accommodation isnât fancy, the kitchen is a bit grim, but all in all, I like it a lot!
Whatâs it like being a student here?
Compared to my experience in Dublin, it very different â the area of the university is enormous in comparison to Trinity. Between the main building and the metro the general area is populated exclusively by students! This, when coming from Ireland, which is absolutely microscopic in comparison with Russia is quite impressive. The fact that here, it takes me about 25 minutes to get to the supermarket, and at least an hour to go anywhere, is quite a shock when in Ireland you can practically cycle from one side of the country to the other and it doesnât take very long.
What about money? Is it expensive here for you, in comparison to what youâd be spending in Ireland?
I meet a lot of people from mainland Europe here, and they are all constantly complaining that Moscow is terribly expensive. I find that hysterical, because coming from Dublin, the prices in Moscow for food for example are about half of what they are back home. Coffee here is just so unfathomably cheap, coming from Ireland. Maybe not in this âShokoladnitsaâ, but in general. I am one of the lucky bunch who have English as their first language. I can make a pretty good living here teaching English. I couldnât do that in Ireland. My pay was better at the beginning of the year when I arrived; my money has been essentially halved with the falling rouble. But nevertheless, it is much easier to survive here than back home, where I live with my parents, and my living costs are still probably more expensive than they are here.
Do you find the teaching methods different here?
It feels a little more formal here, in Ireland, there is a lot more input from the students in classes, but here itâs much more autonomous: fewer classes but a lot more homework and the teachers expect you to keep up. Trinity is a very good university, but here I feel that I am really being made to push myself and making a lot more progress in the language than I would have been able to do at home.
In general, I am very impressed with MGU (Moscow State University) in terms of the courses and the teaching standards. For example, the Irish department is bigger here than the Irish department at Trinity! The administration here is just a nightmare â I have cried over paperwork! But nevertheless, they do want to make us comfortable here â when I arrived in I met by a girl from the university who spoke to me in fluent Irish. I was completely astounded by this. It would be rare to meet someone with that level of Irish at home, so to hear my native language was a great comfort when I was feeling about a million light years away from home.
Whatâs the social life like here? Do you feel safe?
The kind of vibe that you get from Russian students here is quite different from the students in the part of Dublin where I lived, which is very Bohemian. I felt quite out of place here at first. In my first week, I was wearing white DocMartins, and a Russian student said: âonly skinheads wear thoseâ. So that was quite a shock, I was then convinced that there were no Bohemian people in the entirety of Russia, but within a week or two I found lots of them. There are just so many people here, that it takes a little longer to find your niche.
I was told originally that there were no interesting groups or societies in the university, but Iâve had great fun with the International Students Group, which brings together Russian students who want to get to know about other cultures, and obviously all the foreign exchange students, who want to get to know other foreigners, whose Russian isnât maybe that great yet. There is a student bar called Kamchatka, which is a very well known international student bar. I found it almost bizarre when I went there; I was in Moscow but everyone around me was German, and we were listening to Spanish music. In general, once you find some people who you can get on with, itâs fine, especially with the Metro, which makes it easy to get into the centre.
For me I feel safer here than I would in Dublin, maybe because I donât pick up everything that people are saying! I find that there is a huge difference to the way that young people drink in Russia and the way that young people drink in my own country. Back home, people drink to get completely out of their heads, and itâs often quite unpleasant to go out. I find that here people drink socially and not to the point of complete incoherence. So for me, as somebody who doesnât drink at all, it is pleasant to go out here and have a good time. I also feel that people donât bother you if youâre obviously uncomfortable here â they can take a hint in Russia!
Wow! Everything you are saying runs contrary to the expectations that we have about being a student here!
When I went back home for Christmas I was quite disturbed to hear what people were saying about Russia. One of the biggest issues was that a lot of my friends were under the impression that Russians are terribly, violently homophobic. I know lots of perfectly happy gay people here, and none of them are scared to go out in the evening together, and be seen somewhere with their partners. They are all aware that attitudes are not quite the same as they are in Western Europe, but they are not afraid that they are going to be shot by a police officer or beaten up.
Itâs not until you get here that you realise just how very normal it is here. I was expecting a much greater level of culture shock. You can go to the supermarket and buy Nutella and Coke, youâre not going to die out here! You are not going to have to eat cabbage and potatoes all the time! You are not only going to drink vodka and encounter Cossacks in the street. Itâs very much like a stretched out version of Dublin.
Do you want to come back here?
I definitely see myself coming back here, but for us, the biggest problem is the visa situation. It is difficult for us and for our friends to come and go. If your family wants to visit you, they might have to wait for two weeks for a visa, by which time you might be dead. I actually was in hospital and if I had been anywhere else, my mother would have come out on the next flight to see that I was all right, but thatâs not really an option here.
So you would you advise students to get health insurance before coming here?
Yes, definitely. A lot of people donât consider it, because they are young and healthy. However it is not until you actually get in front of doctor and realize that you have to communicate in a language that is not your own, that you realize how important it is to have everything sorted out. I have insurance, which covered me for Russian health care. I got appendicitis just before Christmas. I was taken to hospital in an ambulance. Things were not as comfortable as I would have liked them to be, mainly because of the language barrier, but the treatment was actually good. The lack of soap and toilet paper in the wards was not. What would have happened to me without insurance â I donât know.
The other thing I would like to say to any young Irish coming out here, is definitely register with the embassy. They are really friendly, there is always food and drinks, which is sometimes very welcome when youâre a poor hungry student. There is a really great sense of community here amongst the Irish, they even do Gaelic football training in the university, organized by Moscow Shamrock, which amazed me when I found out about it. Generally speaking, I have been surprised just how easy it has all been. I love my life in Moscow.