‘Everything Here Warrants a Celebratory Drink’

PHOTO by Artem Zhitenev / MOSLENTA
A Portuguese native talks about life in the capital, Moscow culture, and local women with an eye for foreigners

João Carlos Mendonça João, 38. Lecturer at the Camões Instituto da Cooperação e da Língua. Portugal native. 12 years in Moscow and counting.

I came to Moscow during my second visit to Russia. Saint Petersburg was my first Russian city, and I moved out there to be with my girlfriend. I lived and worked using fake documents – my real visa quickly ran out. It was August of 1998, right when the financial crisis hit hard. I initially pretended to be deaf-mute when dealing with people, but eventually I started learning names of groceries, then simple sentences, and, long story short, I learnt Russian. At the time I worked as an English tutor. I remember that right before I walked into my first class the director of the language course program told me: “Remember, you’re not João Mendonça. I’ve told the students that you’re John Mendons from London.” Oh, those were wild times… but that’s a different story.

Work

I moved to Moscow in 2003, where I became a French tutor: I know the language as my native tongue after being in France and spending many years there. Within a year, I’d become a lecturer at the Camões Instituto da Cooperação e da Língua. Now I teach at Moscow State Institute of International Relations and Moscow State University. I visit Saint Petersburg once a month, where I visit Herzen State Pedagogical University and Saint Petersburg State University. There I supervise the majority of projects promoting Portuguese culture in Russia. There is no cultural attaché at the Portuguese embassy, so I closely cooperate with them in that capacity.

I’m very proud of what I’ve managed to do here. It would be impossible to do the same in Western Europe. We’ve held a series of concerts at prestigious halls, with Russian orchestras playing music by Portuguese composers. Some of these works were appreciated so much that they’ve become part of the orchestras’ repertoires.

I’ve also co-authored two Portuguese textbooks for Russian students. When Mikhail Evlanov and Chulpan Khamatova filmed América in Portugal, I helped them with their script, which was in Portuguese.

High-paced Life

My first impression of Moscow was that the city was very busy, and quite high-paced compared to Saint Petersburg. There’s also a lot more money here – both prices are salaries are higher.

Muscovites are always busy. They’re very proactive and pushing, especially when it comes to making money. At the same time people here are somewhat spoiled. After all, you can find anything in Moscow, just like in that joke:

A foreigner flies to Moscow and gets in a cab. The driver asks him:

— So, where are we going?

— I think I’d like to go to Essentially?

— You know where in the city it is?

— Not sure, but my friends said that in Moscow essentially has everything and allows you to do anything…

The city is different from any other. Different enterprise opportunities, different salaries, different infrastructure, even different benefits and pensions. Living conditions here are good, and I hope that the situation improves country-wide.

My parents and I come from Santarém, a city 66 kilometers from Lisbon. Everyone knows everyone else and people greet each other in the streets. I’m not a big fan of that, it makes me feel cramped. I think it’s great that you can go around Moscow all day and not see a single familiar face. I’m quite comfortable with that.

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Street in Santarém, Portugal

Moscow is developing rapidly; you can always feel that buzz, that drive here. I enjoy it. There’s a lot of work, I leave home at 7 am and come back at 11 or even midnight. Sometimes even at 1 am if there’s a festival. I see that the city never stops, never sleeps – it’s awesome.

Culture

I’m also a big fan of the cultural scene in Moscow. It’s quite lively and a lot of people are engaged in it. Any theatrical opening night is a big event here. It’s not like that in Lisbon.

Take my job here – the promotion of Portuguese culture. I’m delighted that people here are very interested in our events; we regularly have a lot of visitors. Often the motivation is curiosity – unlike Italy, Spain or France, we’ve been holding these events for not that long. I’m quite impressed with the capacity of Muscovites, and Russians in general, to take in another culture. Culture here is like bread, it’s an integral part of everyone’s personality.

I’m not very familiar with the Moscow nightlife. I don’t go to clubs or bars often; I prefer having friends over- you know, in my kitchen, soviet-style. I think it’s cozier that way. I do go to theatres, although not that often. I go to the movies, European, Latin American and Asian cinema festivals. I closely follow Russian cinema as well. But there’s so much work that I can’t really do everything I want to.

Weekends and Winter

Moscow has its downsides. It’s tough to have a relaxing weekend here. I don’t have a country house, and if I want to get away from it all on Saturday and Sunday then I need to travel really far, to another city. It’s complicated. You know, back home in Lisbon I’m used to being able to get to the ocean in 20 minutes. You can’t get to a leisure spot from Moscow that quickly.

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Izmaylovsky Park

Moscow’s parks save the day. I really like cross country skiing at Izmaylovsky Park. I actually really love it when it’s freezing out; that was one of the reasons I moved to Russia. I’m so annoyed when a Muscovite tells me how great it is that winters are becoming warmer thanks to global warming. What’s great about it? It’s unnatural!

Cats and Women

I got a cat in Moscow. She needs me and she’s very attached, so I bring her along not only on business trips but whenever I come visit someone. I spend most of my free time (the little that I have) with her.

I wouldn’t want to make stereotypes based on my personal experience, but I do think that male foreigners need to be on guard in Moscow. Some women here prey on such foreigners and pounce when they smell money and personal gain. Expats here are seen as exotic birds, naive and innocent. And you know what, it’s often true. You can get robbed or blackmailed. A few of my acquaintances have gotten themselves into such unfortunate situations. Sometimes foreigners are the ones that get themselves into trouble. Many show off, boast and chase each girl they see. We have a saying in Portugal: he who looks at the face doesn't see the heart (quem vê cara não vê curacao). Moscow women know how to dress and wear makeup. You can’t always spot a cunning man-eater until it’s too late.

Food and Drink

Food is good in Moscow, but the portions are small. In Portugal we’ll often order half-portions because the full ones are good for two or even three people. When I’m leaving a Moscow café or a restaurant I’m still hungry. The level of service here is also lacking. Waiters are young and it’s a first job for many, apparently. It appears that this profession is not very prestigious here and novices are rarely trained. Only the most expensive restaurants have good service.

At the same time, prices are high everywhere. Even in cafés at universities catering to students have expensive food. I’m not used to it; I don’t think it’s right. In regional Russian universities, café prices are much fairer. The same should go for Moscow.

I knew that people overindulge in Russia, and in Moscow in particular, even before I moved here. Of course, I’ve seen binge drinking in France and in other countries, but there they drink wine, while here you generally drink hard liquors and get drunk faster.

I still remember one news report from 12 years ago: I was flabbergasted by it. Some convenience store in the Moscow suburbs announced a competition where the winner would be the one to drink the most vodka. The winner died while some of the competitors fell into a coma. The strangest part is that first prize was a crate of vodka. The store was, of course, shut down. I don’t think it was worth it and I don’t know of any other country where it would have been possible to officially hold such a competition.

Initially, I was surprised that everything here was a reason to raise a glass. Each purchase, even small ones like an iron or a chair, warrants a celebratory drink. It’s a fun tradition, sure, but we don’t do it in Europe. Only when, say, a child is born, or a purchase is quite significant – a car or a house. It’s not culturally mandatory, so even if you don’t have a party, no one’s going to bat an eye. Here, your friends would never let you live it down. Russians also drink at funerals, while in Portugal we generally hold such events in silence and with no alcohol.

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Pastel de nata — a Portuguese egg tart pastry. Best served with port

Another thing I find astonishing is how you drink port. There’s a certain protocol to follow in the West: before a meal you’re served aperitif – port or whiskey. But here everything’s already on the table and everyone drinks everything at the same time. Russians don’t really discern wines and ports; they rarely know how to pair and drink them. I’ve given my friends vintage port on several occasions. They drank it like table wine, washing down their dinner with it. I was shocked at first but now I’m used to it.

Port is good with salty appetizers, cheese or special pastries – you can even find them in Moscow nowadays. They’re called pastéis de nata. Just like port, these are considered to be Portugal’s culinary staple.

Author: Oleg Matveev