1. Say “na zdorovie!” during a toast.
You want to impress your Russian friends and to propose a toast, and “na zdorovie” comes to your mind. But you will only get looks of slight exasperation and annoyance: Russians do not say that as a toast. In fact, in Russian language “na zdorovie” is close to “you are welcome”. Most Russians have no idea who started this whole thing with drinking “na zdorovie,” but it’s already a bit irritating.
2. Bring an even number of flowers for your date.
Being courteous and a little old fashioned when it comes to dating, Russians believe that if a gentleman asks a lady out, he should bring her favorite flowers. When you know that and want to be nice, you should also learn that only odd number of flowers can be presented. If you bring an even number of roses, the reaction will be anything from laughter to offence. Even numbers are only for funerals — who the hell knows why?
3. Admit you don’t speak Russian to a person who spent twenty minutes having a nice conversation with you.
All my foreign friends have been in this situation: you are walking down the street or catching a bus in Moscow, when a local turns to you and starts a conversation. Ten minutes into that chat you feel it is time to confess that you don’t know Russian, but while you are waiting for the right moment, your new acquaintance takes out his phone and shows you photos of his grandkids or gives you a chocolate… and it is too late. You can’t do it now. So you smile and nod, “da, da,” feeling embarrassed and trying not to give yourself away, because it might break your interlocutor’s heart.
4. Ask for tea with milk.
If in a restaurant you ask for milk with your tea, you will get a genuine incomprehension. Your Russian friends will probably smirk and go into a long explanation that adding milk to tea is for children, and once you finish primary school you drink black tea. If you like tea with milk be prepared for snickers. At the same time, it is totally fine to put honey, raspberry jam and five spoons of sugar in the cup.
There will be no forgiveness. In Moscow everyone follows the unwritten law of dressing up always, everywhere, no matter what. Even a casual look is carefully thought through and is approved by home critics. If you run out of milk and need to get to the closest supermarket, you can’t do that in track pants. If you do, you will immediately be spotted as a foreigner or become an object of discussion in your apartment block: “I wonder what happened to that lovely girl/boy from apartment 202, have you seen what she/he wore outside?”
6. Don’t let an elderly person take your seat in transport.
There is a big chance that the whole train carriage will stare at you angrily and judge. You are lucky if that judgment is silent: sometimes people team up to verbally destroy you, your manners, and the parenting skills of your mom and dad.
7. Be slow in public transport.
Be slow anywhere. Moscow is always running, rushing and people who are not keeping up with this crazy pace are pushed out of the way. If you want everyone to think you are a dumbass, take your time in shops, pharmacies, streets, etc. But being slow in Moscow metro is playing with fire: the mob will just absorb you and you will drown in the stream of rushing passengers.
8. Don’t tie your shoe laces.
Every finger will be pointing at your loose shoe laces. Initial reaction can be: “What the hell? Why is everyone pointing at my shoes? What is happening?” The truth is that in Russia in a very early age children are taught to keep laces properly tied, otherwise you can step on them and fall down — it is ingrained in every person. Strangers will feel it is their duty to tell you that loose shoe laces are extremely dangerous!
9. Fail to use the metro card.
Every foreigner I know in Moscow has validated their ticket in the metro incorrectly at least once and thus has gotten a massive whack in the thighs from the ticket barrier. While this is an easy mistake to make, the workers of the metro will assume you were trying to sneak inside without a ticket — until they see your confused face and tears of pain in your eyes.
10. Dress too warm in summer and not properly in winter.
Russia is known for severe climate, but it doesn’t mean it is always cold here — especially in Moscow, where it is hot in summer and winters are mild compared to the rest of the country. I can’t help giggling, when I see tourists wrapped in two jerseys and scarves in Moscow in warm season, when the weather is +20C to +30C. In winter, on the other hand, you need that jersey, and a scarf, and gloves, and a nice hat that covers your ears. If not, all eyes will be on you, and in those eyes you will read: poor thing, he is doomed. Meningitis and pneumonia, chilblain and tonsillitis, let’s get him some soup and a cup of tea with raspberry jam!