Student Survival Kit for Russia

Here it is, your check list of what to consider packing when coming on your year abroad in Russia.

  • Spices and stock pastes etc – especially if you like smoked paprika (they have the normal stuff but in my opinion it has no real flavour!), ground ginger and cumin.
  • Vitamin supplements (B12 and D). You can buy vitamin d here, but if you’re veggie like me you might want to bring a brand you know. (Though I’ve since discovered that Veganika sells D and B12, but not every city in Russia is guaranteed to have them and they could be more expensive here.)
  • decaf coffee – decaf isn’t really a thing here.
  • blue tack
  • prepaid currency cards – I’d recommend Caxton FX. You just load it with as much as you want, and then if it gets lost or stolen or anything you only have to deal with the money on that card and not your whole account, which is a lot harder and will cost you with all the phone calls you’d have to make abroad.
  • Photocopies of your passport, proof of insurance, migration card (you’ll have to get these done after you’ve entered the country), letter from your university/proof of accommodation (not crucial but would be useful).
  • Thick scarf, hat and gloves, especially if you’re coming in the winter season.
  • Thermal layers.
  • Lined paper. For some reason, refill pads are not a thing here. You can buy copy books, but most of the time the paper is squared and not lined. I’ve made do by buying printer paper and hole-punching it.
  • Any bank details/log-in details you might need to do online banking. You just never know if you’ll have a problem with your accounts or something.
  • Paracetamol, ibuprofen and any other pain killer or medication that you are used to taking/have to take. You can’t guarantee that they will sell it here. I have managed to buy Ibuprofen (Ибупрофен) here though… so that one is fine. IF YOU NEED EPI-PENS, MAKE SURE YOU BRING ENOUGH! There was a girl that had to have some specially brought in from Finland and it was a really complicated process…
  • If you’re a gym goer, bring a microfibre towel, and travel bottles for shampoo/conditioner/shower gel etc. and flip flops for the showers. Oh, and make sure you wear a separate set of trainers in the gym than in the street – you HAVE to change your shoes.
  • Bring slippers. Whenever you go to someone’s house/in your own home, you need to change out of your outdoor shoes. It makes more sense once you’ve lived through the winter here and the roads become dirty with black ice and black snow.
  • Bring gifts! If you’re staying with a host family, bring a fridge magnet, tea towel, box of biscuits in the shape of a telephone box/post box…. anything that is a little piece of something traditional from home. Your hosts will love it, although – be warned – it’s not the Russian way to show a ton of emotion when they receive a gift. They’ll appreciate it, but don’t expect them to go into raptures!

I would say that’s most of it. You can find pretty much any cosmetic/toiletry item in shops like ulibka radugi and skarlett (Улыбка Радуги, Скарлетт). For cruelty free stuff I tend to go to Veganika (Веганика), although those other two shops also sell CF stuff too sometimes. Most supermarkets will sell a large variety of food items. For clothes we have H&M, Bershka, Stradivarius, there’s even an M&S and Victoria’s Secret…. so in St P and Moscow and even in Novosibirsk I’d say you can find most things you need like that essentials-wise. For stationary stuff, book void is the best shop – Бук Войд.

 

Advertisements

Vegan in the winter… in Russia. 

This post is an update on how I’m managing life as a plant based vegan in Russia and how I’m planning on coping in the winter. I just want to make a mini disclaimer here and say that I’m not an expert in nutrition, and I’m relying on recommendations from sources that I trust (NHS UK, How Not To Die by Doctor Gregor, for example). I’m just giving ideas and suggestions here, I’m not suggesting that this is the only way to live / that this works for everyone.

But first a little history on Russian cuisine: for centuries, Russians have eaten meat and fatty/carb-y foods throughout the winter to keep them going because it gets so so cold (as much as -20 degrees Celsius!). Through all of the famines and civil wars and sieges that the people have had to deal with, it makes sense that their diet always includes a high calorie source of protein and fat (aka meat and dairy) with some kind of carb.

In previous decades, the thought of being vegan in Russia would have been laughable… so very difficult. But fortunately the word is spreading and veganism is on the rise even here in Russia. I’ve actually read accounts of people being raw vegan in Siberia, so if they can do that there, then you can definitely be vegan anywhere. Just sayin’. However, there are definitely less vegan ‘junk food’ products – as in, the more processed stuff. Vegan burgers, sausages, fake cheeses, etc. In my first post about my initial discoveries about being vegan in Russia, I talked about soy milk and yogurt – check that post out by clicking on this link here. There aren’t as many plant milk options either so far as I know… I’ve only managed to find a few in Stockman (the Finnish shop) and Kompas Zdorov’ya and they tend to be more pricey. [edit: after further exploring, I found the aptly named shop Veganika (Веганика) – it’s near Cadovaya metro station and sells cheaper plant milks, massive blocks of tofu, and pretty much anything else you might want as a vegan (ice cream, yogurt, etc. And it’s not too expensive!) check it out when you come to St P.]

This is what I’ve discovered from researching online – and some of it applies to meat eaters too.

Things to focus on:

Vitamin D. This is crucial for everyone. The days get so dark that you literally don’t really see the sun. It is easy to get deficient in vitamin D and that can lead to a calcium deficiency which is damaging to your bones. It can also lead to other problems like depression etc – Seasonal depression especially. I was recommended this brand of vitamin d drops which I bought in an аптека (apteka – like a chemists. They can be found everywhere). They were just over 200 roubles, so about £1.50ish.

Vitamin B12. You should probably already be taking this, vegan or not, because there are few reliable natural sources of b12 anymore. B12 is a bacteria that grows in the soil, and when we wash our vegetables/use insecticides etc. this washes it off. B12 is crucial for your nervous system, and becoming deficient can cause serious health consequences. You don’t need to be taking it every day, but once a week is recommended. You can get tablets or a spray fairly cheaply in a health food shop or online. Here in Russia the aptekas would sell it.

Iron. Spinach, potatoes, beans and lentils are my friends here. Oh, and chocolate of course.

Vitamin C and A – winter squash and any fruits (especially citrus) that you can get your hands on. The great thing is that winter squash has both of these nutrients and it’s in season in the winter (hence the name). I’ve managed to find little pots and bags of it frozen, but buying fresh usually gets you more bang for your buck (as they say). Fortunately oranges are cheaper than apples at the moment so I’m getting a lot of those in but the prices do change.

Healthy fats – dark chocolate, tofu, avocado (if you can get it and it’s not too expensive), nuts (almonds, peanuts, walnuts, etc), and seeds (flaxseed, chia, tahini / sesame, etc). Avocado is pretty expensive here, so only rely on this if your budget allows. You can buy tinned olives here fairly cheaply and olive oil is also available. I go to Kompas Zdorov’ya/Veganika for flaxseed butter (yes it’s a thing) and peanut butter / tahini. I also buy olives fairly cheaply from supermarkets. Your body will turn to fat to burn for fuel to keep warm so make sure you stay stocked up on these!

Carbs – where possible go for whole grain – so oats, rice, pasta, buckwheat (it’s really cheap here), potatoes (if you can get sweet ones every once in a while for the extra beta carotene and vitamins, but ty are pretty expensive, sadly). Rye bread is cheap too and nutritious, Russians eat this at breakfast lunch and tea most days! It’s a staple here and definitely worth a try to make the most of being in Russia. Likewise with the buckwheat. You can also get some vareniki (dumplings) which are stuffed with potato, beans, spinach or pumpkin which are vegan friendly, just make sure you check the ingredients/apply the benefit of the doubt rule (read my last post to find out more about that).

Colourful and green veggies – peppers, beetroots, spinach, kale (if you like it – I personally don’t!), cabbage (especially red cabbage which has a great nutritional profile). Winter squash again fits in this category. I find that frozen spinach from Stockman is cheaper. Also frozen broccoli. And look for sales (скидка / скидки). Vegetables tend to go up in price or disappear from the shops at this time of year so you might have to budget to pay a bit more for them if you can’t find anything cheap.

Fruit – yes, even in winter you can get some fruits! Bananas are usually available year round, and although they will be imported and aren’t local, they are better than nothing and are great for stuff like potassium etc. In Russia cranberries are pretty cheap because they can grow in colder climates, and they pack a serious nutritional punch. I get them frozen to add to my porridge (oatmeal) in the mornings but also because they are cheaper this way.

Dried fruit. Dates, dried apricots, prunes, raisins, etc. are widely available here too.

Vegan in Russia??? 

I’ve been wanting to do a post like this for years because there aren’t many out there on the internet and I was freaking out thinking I wouldn’t have any food when I was researching before actually coming. Here is my advice so far. 

From the get-go, tell the people doing your application that you’re vegetarian/vegan. I told my reps and the year abroad people helping me with my application, I also emailed the coordinator of the RLUS course, and I wrote clearly on my home stay application that I was vegan. I also requested to be able to cook for myself. This is important!

Fortunately, my home stay owners let me cook whenever I want and I have a little fridge and freezer space. They are so kind and are always offering my their fruit or rye bread/whatever bread they have at the time, and my host babushka Zoya is always offering me her friends’ homemade jams and compotes which she gets given and they are delicious! She even let me have some leftover boiled rice that she didn’t need the other evening so I didn’t have to cook anything! 

During the first week, I spent around 1,500 roubles (about £15) on food for a weekly shop… but that’s a rough budget and in England I normally have £20 so I might have to buy some more food to keep me going to the weekend, but we’ll see.

I buy a lot of vegetables and I look for what’s in season or which vegetables you spend less on per kilogram. The way it works here in Russia and in most European countries is you get the amount you want in a plastic bag, weigh the bag, select the number of the vegetable you are weighing (should be on the sign above the place you found that particular food item) and then you hit that and it prints you a little sticker with a bar code and the price on it. You stick this on the bag and away you go until you pay for it all at the end at the till. There aren’t many vegan meat substitutes, such as burgers etc, in the supermarkets.

I tend to go for aubergines (eggplant), squash and cucumbers and tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, buckwheat and millet – buckwheat and millet are a bit like rice but more widely eaten in Russia so they are cheaper, although rice is also pretty cheap! Pasta is a bit more expensive. There are tons of varieties of bread and all of them are fairly cheaply priced, especially rye bread. Pre-made sauces and things like olives and olive oil are more expensive, but not much more. It’s cheaper than in England anyway. You can get tinned beans and also dried ones, but lentils are a lot cheaper. Oh, and potatoes!! They are only about 40 roubles per kilogram if that!! I found a shelf of various kinds of plant milks in a Finnish supermarket called STOCKMANN (CTOKMAHH) – I bought an unsweetened alpro soy milk. I also saw some tofu, not an amazing brand, but guys it exists out here. I wouldn’t expect to find it in normal Russian supermarkets though. Apparently Spar is the place to go for stuff like that, and it’s all over St P so hopefully I’ll get my hands on some soon, although it’s not crucial to my survival. I just like tofu once in a while!

Vegan heaven!

You can buy fruit and veg from little stalls on the street, but bear in mind that you have no idea where they were grown or what pesticides were put on them etc so it’s probably better to buy in a supermarket. I am going to try out Lime supermarket (a friend recommended it) and if you buy their discount card (100 roubles) you get everything cheaper and rack up points and things. Anything they don’t sell in Lime I can always get in Stockmann which is just over the road anyway. Another store I’ve been recommended trying is called Dixie (Дикси)… but so far I haven’t visited one yet.

For restaurants – use Happy Cow. Just type it into Google and type in your location. You’d be surprised at how many vegetarian friendly ones you’ll find. There’s a chain of restaurants called Ukrop (Укроп) which are vegetarian/vegan and have great prices. Also pretty much any cafe/restaurant will sell boiled rice, buckwheat and some kind of salad so you can mix those together and bring your own beans or something if you need a bit extra. Check out this article written by my friend Michaela about the top vegetarian/vegan places to eat in St Petersburg to get an idea of what’s out here.

I think my biggest tip of all is to just be prepared. Forward-think and bring things in tupper-wares, things you’ve prepared at home.

Another policy I’ve lived by since a friend told me about it is the ‘benefit of the doubt’ policy. She spent her year in Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia, and she had a vegan friend out there. (If she can be vegan in Siberia, you can be vegan in Russia).  Sometimes you just have to choose the best option that’s available and not get hung up on whether it has an animal product in it or not. For example, on my first night here, my host offered me some waffles (the sweet wafer ones, not potato waffles or american breakfast waffles). They are probably mostly made with flour and sugar and water, but could possibly have butter or milk in them. I didn’t know, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt and tried one. I didn’t want to be rude. If it’s once every now and then, it honestly doesn’t matter. Otherwise you might risk alienating people if you’re too rigid about it. That’s the reality, especially if you aren’t a native and you’re trying to get settled etc. Maybe in a few months I’ll know the place better and have a better routine or even have moved out with some Russian friends and be able to have a bit more say in what ingredients are in my food, but for now I am going to make do.

Your main priority is, after all, to learn Russian and experience Russia and get stuck in. So letting food get in the way will only make it miserable.

These are some of my tips so far and how well I’ve done in my first week. I might do an updated post later in the term if things have changed and once I’m into the routine a bit more. Sorry there isn’t that much in it, but I wanted to try and encourage those out there that might be put of setting foot in Russia thinking that they won’t get catered for. Vegetarianism is much more well-known now in Russia, especially amongst the younger generations, so don’t worry and don’t let it put you off.

Until next time!!!

 

[UPDATE: I found a health food shop that sells cheap but good quality tofu (100p/roubles) and soy yogurt (90р/roubles) and pretty much everything else you’ll need as a vegan (helloooo peanut butter with no sugar, oils, salt and other additives). It’s called Компас Здоровья (Compass Zdorov’ya) and it’s on Садовая ( Садовая, 38, МО №2 “Сенной”) not far from Sennaya square metro station (Сенная площадь). I’ve also bought soy mince really cheaply from there for about 70-75 roubles. ]

Tips for Language Learning while Abroad

Here it is, as promised 🙂 My best tips for making sure you make the most of you year abroad and get as fluent as possible. I’ve also checked some of the things my own uni recommended to add further suggestions, but mostly these are my personal recommendations and things I’ve found have helped me! You can totally reject this if it doesn’t work for you, everyone works differently. I’m a visual and kinesthetic learner before an aural learner – which means that I need lots of visual information and I also need to do or practice the language / grammar for it to actually go into my brain. Just listening isn’t enough. So here’s tip number one:

  1. Find out what kind of learner you are. This is really important because it will change the way you revise and it will help you memorise vocab and grammar easier. You can take free tests online, just Google it 😉 There are about 4 types, Kinesthetic, Aural, Visual and then Traditional (I think).
  2. Say ‘yes’ a lot! People will offer you things, to go shopping, to go see a movie, etc. Just say yes. It’s all good experience and you’ll learn something about the culture from these.
  3. Stay with a family/Spanish friends who speak only/mostly Spanish/whatever your target language is. This way you wake up speaking the language, and go to bed speaking the language. You’ll get so much more out of it, trust me. And if the family has kids, this is a good way of getting practice using different registers – speaking more politely to grandparents whereas with kids you can usually be more informal.
  4. Go over difficult areas of grammar that you notice yourself struggling with. Don’t just leave them and hope they go away! I still go over the past tenses in Spanish and the subjunctive… and ser and estar still catch me out occasionally!! Just because you’re in the country doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll immediately become bad-ass at grammar, so make sure you try and do some exercises / revision a few times a week. Nothing intensive. If you can, take a course at a local uni.
  5. Write down new vocabulary – no excuses! I keep lists of new vocab, and as I mentioned in my last post, we’ve actually stuck up some pieces of blank paper in the kitchen with all of our names on so we can write down new words in English/Spanish and then go over them together at meal times. This is great for kids, but to be honest it works for adults too.
  6. You’re gonna love this one! Watch TV! and films… but in the target language obviously. If possible, use subtitles in that language too instead of in your native language, if you need it that is! But often programs have actors speaking clearly and with good grammar. I watched an episode of El Ministerio del Tiempo last night and it was great! I recommend the site rtve.es for series and news etc. for Spanish.
  7. Read. If you can, get your hands on a novel, maybe one you’ve read before so you know what happens, but trust me, this really helped not only to widen my vocabulary but also to get used to ways of saying things, set phrases/idioms, and the grammar structures. I read the Fault in Our Stars (Bajo la misma estrella) only in Spanish, I’ve also read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter y la cámara secreta), The Last Song (La última canción) and the Hunger Games (book one – Los juegos del hambre) in Spanish, and am currently reading Gone Girl (Perdida). I haven’t managed to get my hands on a Russian novel yet but I’m probably going to try and get the first Harry Potter on my kindle! [*Fun fact, in Russian they sometimes pronounce the ‘H’ sound (х) as a hard G sound like in gutter (г), so Harry Potter is Gary Potter to Russians (Гарpи Поттер), but for us English lot at least this makes it take on a whole different meaning! 😉 ]
  8. Do things that scare you – go for a train journey somewhere so that you have to buy tickets, go to the cinema or theatre, etc. These experiences will bring you into contact with people who don’t speak English/ your native language and will help you use what you have on the spot. 

So there you go – my 8 pieces of advice for helping you use and develop your language on your year abroad. Hope this helps!