Russia – It’s like being illiterate


My friend Kate warned me time and time again how difficult it would be to get around in Russia since I didn’t know the language. Well. She was correct.

Moscow was impossible. I was only there for about 2 hours and it was a hot mess. No one spoke any English and I can’t read any of the signs, tickets, directions, etc. As a guy I met in our hostel so accurately put it – It’s like being illiterate.

As I mentioned in my last post, a slight disaster upon arrival meant that we spent our first night in Russia attempting to navigate through the city to get tickets to St. Petersburg. It was incredibly hard.

In the airport, there was enough English for us to easily find our way to express train which took us to Moscow city center. From there we needed to get on the Metro to head to the main train terminal.

Even though the metro station was only a block away from where our express train dropped us off, there were no clues of where to go. The word Metro is the same in Russian as it is in English, but approaching people for directions was fruitless. I tried saying “Metro?” with a confused look but for the most part I was waved away or given a sad head shake.

“Metro?” “Metro?”

Finally a cab driver pointed down the street and after some further searching we found the metro. I’ve ridden a lot of metros in my life, and I assumed it would be self-explanitory.

Surprise – it was not.

Luckily, we knew which station we needed to get too and we were confident it didn’t involve a line change. After standing by the map for a few minutes, pointing at our stop and looking hopefully at other riders, we were pointed in the right direction.

Then we arrived at the stop with the train station where we were greeted by an absolute mob. It looked like an evacuation scene from a movie. We were jammed packed so closely I couldn’t even bend down to tie my shoe. We inched slowly out of the station for about 15 minutes before we reached daylight. Then the real challenge began.

Train Station at 5am

We had no idea where to go or what to do to buy tickets.

We resumed our normal, wander around repeating “St. Petersburg?” routine but after a while were ready to give up. We had been traveling since 6 am the day before. We hadn’t eaten a meal since then. We were tired, hungry, etc. Maybe it was time to just find a hostel and try again the next day.

Then a man a little older than myself tapped me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me miss. You were trying to go to St. Petersburg?”

I know where you think this is going. Don’t worry. It’s not.

Not only did this guy (Who we shall call Nicest Guy in the World – NGITW) walk us to the ticket booth, he also helped us purchase our ticket by translating with the ticket counter lady. He walked us through all the options for class and times and then translated all the information printed on our ticket to us.

Then NGITW walked us to the train departure area and explained where to look to find out the exact terminal where our train would be. Then he bid us goodbye, and gave us his email address in case we had any problems. I was so happy for his help – it was confusing enough that I am confident we wouldn’t have figured it out on our own. Check out this sign:

One of those is a train to St. Petersburg – care to guess which?

While we were waiting to buy our tickets, he told us that when he was in India, a few years earlier, he had had a similar situation where he needed to buy train tickets and could figure out what to do. Someone had helped him then and now he wanted to help us. I guess the lesson here is that we should all help confused tourists in our home countries and hopefully someone will help us when we are lost.

Beautiful, I know.

The good news is St. Petersburg was a totally different story. The metro is easy to use (really all I need is some color coding and signs saying were the line ends…nothing more!) and I have a map which I can read and determine where the train stations, metros and roads are. It’s pretty perfect. Plus the city is beautiful. Both Shannon and I are already reluctant to leave and return to Moscow tomorrow.


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9 Responses to Russia – It’s like being illiterate

  1. Sylvain says:

    Your post is so typical of Americans getting out of the US and realizing that the world isn’t all speaking English. I don’t mean it in a pejorative way, but it’s part of the American’s vision of the world that everything is revolving around their country and if there’s only one American in a foreign country every one should speak American English.

    I’m fluent in French (my native language) and in English, plus a basis in Spanish, so I can get around most parts of the world. I did have to find ways around when I’ve been to Germany and Czech republic.

    Here are a few tips I used that might help you:
    - if you have a smartphone, download a translation software that will at least provide you with basic necessities phrases. (there are tons of iPod and Android applications for that, many are free)
    - Go on Google Translate to translate a few key sentences needed for your specific itinerary (like ‘train to St-Petersbough’) and save them through screen capture to use on your smartphone or print them for later use.
    - Learn at least your numbers 0 to 10 in the local language
    - For restaurants, opt for those with pictures on menu (or on walls) and point to what you want (I took a few shots from menu and showed them at counter a few times in Germany)

    Yes, I felt illeterate (especially in Prague, since German is somewhat close to English, sharing same roots). But have experienced that on many occasions without leaving Montreal… just vising ethnic areas like Greek or Chinese neighbourhoods… where French or English are very rare.

    I’ve always said that I was travelling to meet other cultures… so I’m not expecting the world to be like my neighbourhood and adapt to me. I’m the visitor, so I’m the one who has to adapt. Learning the very basics of the language and culture of people I’m visiting helps me understand better the culture I’m visiting, improving my travelling experience, and it shows them I’m respectful enough of their culture to make an effort to acquire some of it.

  2. Kara Collins says:

    Have fun for me!!!

  3. Luis says:

    I totally, totally get you!
    I got to Moscow on the same page you were: “I’ll get through speaking English… at least someone must speak it” or “I can find my way through the city by reading the map” …the truth is that no one is really prepared to visit Russia (or at least Moscow) on an independent basis. I got there to live for three months without knowing a word on the language… and it wasn’t easy, but at the end it was totally eye-opening and worth it.
    I’m Mexican, so I had absolutely no hopes on speaking Spanish, but I never thought the language barrier would be that huge. Russia is so unexplored and un-open (yet) to foreigners that just visiting is a challenge itself.
    It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just that not everyone is prepared for the way things are there.
    Enjoy! :)

  4. Ruth says:

    The big difference with Russian, Chinese, or Japanese, etc…is that because the language/alphabet is so different, there is no point of reference with which to begin. With European languages, at least an English speaker can look the word up and make an educated stab at communication. When you can’t read the alphabet, and you are tired and hungry too…not so good.

    What architecture!

  5. Janet says:

    Colin was saying that even though he speaks some Russian there is no way he would want to try and travel through Russia without someone fluent in Russian. You should’ve had me teach you the Russian alphabet! It’s actually pretty easy to learn. Doesn’t teach you all the words, but at least gives you the info you need to read proper nouns and cognates (I could read some signs in your photos, yay! Haha) But glad you made it and are still alive!

  6. Ha ha ha! I have had the EXACT same thoughts here in Japan, though about different things. The transportation situation is actually pretty good here in terms of English signage (and when in doubt, just go by whichever train is leaving when yours is scheduled to depart because the trains are ALWAYS on time) and most people understand some English. But restaurants have been more difficult, as we have definitely found ourselves in places where there is no English ANYWHERE on the menu, including prices. So we have had our fair share of mystery meals, and have now learned to recognized Japanese kanji for the numbers 1 – 10. But yeah, it is kind of like being illiterate!

  7. Vicky says:

    I can totally see how Russia and Moscow could be difficult to navigate and travel through. The metro itself is definitely intimidating especially if you are traveling during rush hour and need to get off at a stop that connects 4 different lines and you need to cross over to a different line to get our the exit you need. When back in Moscow make sure to check which exit you need to get out of because for certain stops where multiple lines come together the exits can be pretty far from each other so it’s best to cross over to a different line and leave through the exit you need, rather than go out into the city and navigating through all the huge intersections and underground crossings. Best of luck!

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