After becoming addicted to travelling throughout Russian and the old USSR around 6 years ago, I recently made the decision to move out here full time for work. I soon discovered that travelling around Eastern Europe and living here full time are two very different things. So I decided to list the 5 main tips I class as most important for new expats and the information I wish I’d had when I first arrived.
Learn the language
Learning the language when relocating to a new country may sound obvious, but in many parts of Eastern Europe it’s vital to learn the local language to a survivable level. English is the province of the young here. Indeed, in many places it’s unlikely that people over 35 will be able to speak English. Learning the language will make your life a lot easier and allow you to make local friends in your new home. In Russia and Ukraine, for example, many locals are surprised to find a Westerner who speaks Russian. It therefore makes for a good icebreaker and networking tool, as they are usually keen to introduce you to their circle of friends.
Always opt for local markets over supermarkets
In the former USSR the days of queuing for food are long gone, and today many fully-stocked supermarkets line the streets. They are fine for domestic goods and hygiene products, but you absolutely avoid grocery shopping there. One of the things I love about Eastern Europe are the local markets. Many expats I’ve spoken to have told me they initially didn’t want to shop in the local markets due to their being dirty, rough, and full of shady characters. But this is all part of their charm, and they beat supermarkets hands down for three reasons:
- They’re cheap. Extremely cheap. At my local market in Varna, Bulgaria, I can buy a weekly shop of meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, wine, cakes and snacks for around 13 Euro.
- They’re more interesting and personal than a supermarket. It’s no secret that the service in Eastern Europe is abysmal and the service in supermarkets is robotic and depressing. By contrast, the markets are full of charismatic stall sellers who are selling their own produce and are passionate about it.
- The food quality is superior to the mass-produced goods in a supermarket and superior to Western food. The fresh farm produce in Bulgaria is some of the best I’ve tasted in the world. Pick your own items and don’t leave it to the seller to do it for you, as naturally they will give you the worst items from the pile.
Be open-minded and interact with the locals
In the West, it’s generally suspicious if someone you’ve just met is overly keen to get to know you. If they immediately invite you to their house or a party, it’s doubly suspect. In Eastern Europe, however, it’s simply a standard way to express friendliness. The stereotype of Eastern Europeans being cold and unwelcoming in simply not true. During my first month living in Ukraine I was invited to two weddings and several parties by people I hardly knew. I’m now good friends with those same people.
Be prepared to accept bad service
In much of Eastern Europe, the old USSR mentality dies hard as children learn the lessons of their parents. Basically, the ‘’I’m being paid anyway so why should I bother’’ attitude is still prevalent amongst certain people. When going to restaurants prepare yourself for slow service and items on the menu not being available. In public institutions and banks it can be even worse with bizarre systems that don’t make sense and only exist to give people an employment role. Don’t complain; it will simply make it worse.
Additionally, prepare to budget more time for basic tasks than you would at home in the West. Seemingly simple tasks such as purchasing insurance, which you can do online in the West, often require you to make an appointment and turn up in person. When a Russian needs a new passport, they need to pay a visit to the Federal Security Service in the town or city of registration. This could be the other side of the country and take a couple of days to finish. Be flexible and budget enough time for things such as this. There is no way around it.
Watch the locals and do what they do
The systems in Eastern Europe can be drastically different from the West. For example, when boarding a minibus known as a Marshrutka (not to be confused with an Autobus), you don’t pay the driver when you get on. You instead sit down, tap the shoulder of the person in front of you and hand them the money, which they will pass forward. The driver will then skilfully process the payment while driving to save time, and hand back the change with the same system.
Wipe that smile off your face
The common stereotype associated with Russia is miserable people not cracking smiles. To an extent, this is true. Smiling in public at strangers, which is friendly in the West, is just not acceptable in the East. Just because Eastern Europeans do not smile all the time does not mean that they are angry or miserable. Someone with a permanent smile in Russia is classed as stupid, sly or creepy. Smiling at strange men in particular can lead to a nasty encounter. But bear in mind that when you are in the company of local friends, smiling is fine. The overall rationing of smiles also means that when Eastern Europeans do smile at you, they tend to be more sincere.
Learn the local customs and traditions
While bizarre, Eastern European traditions are ancient, superstitious and never fail to fascinate. For example: give flowers to women on their birthday, but an odd number only. Don’t shake hands through a doorway or when wearing a glove. Shake hands with every man you meet regardless of how short your interaction was. Never whistle indoors, including on trains and buses. And never refuse food – ruthlessness and famine mark Eastern European history, and people believe that food is a blessing to be taken whenever possible.
Be aware of how to interact with locals in Eastern Europe. Shaking hands is de rigeur, while close friends and family hug. Back slaps and hugs from men are a good sign that they like you. Strong eye contact is also important – failing to maintain eye contact will portray you as untrustworthy and sly. Generally, men don’t initiate a handshake with women, but if a woman presents hers, men will accept it.
Adjusting to life in Eastern Europe is no easy feat for a Westerner. But it’s eminently doable if you’re willing to be open-minded, show a little patience, and adapt to the myriad ways in which life differs here. If you’re able to make the transition, you’re in for one of the most rewarding and interesting experiences of your life.