Grocery Shopping (in Russia)


This post is by guest blogger and MATS Summer Intensive 2014 alumnus, Brendan Thompson. Originally from Alberta, Canada, Brendan has been living and working in Moscow for the past year. He is an actor, director, and playwright who loves literature, hockey, and pizza. You can read more about his adventures in Moscow here.

Photo from an Ashan store opening.
Photo from an Ashan store opening.

My first experience in a supermarket in Russia was a terrifying one. When I arrived last year I was taken to Ashan (actually French owned), a store that is like Superstore, but if it were the Autobahn. I have since become much better at navigating grocery stores, and have also made some observations.

I’ve noticed that Russian food, in supermarkets at least, seems to have fewer preservatives and chemicals when it comes to the essentials, like milk, eggs, dairy products, and fresh produce. This is both good and bad.

On the one hand the produce is fresh; tomatoes aren’t abnormally large, there isn’t a waxy substance around your apples, the vegetables look like they were literally pulled out of a garden, put directly onto a truck and brought to the store. Nobody sprayed them with chemicals, no one gave them any growth hormones, or whatever other wonderful things are done to our produce in North America.

Picking Cucumbers by Tatyana Yablonskaya
Picking Cucumbers by Tatyana Yablonskaya

On the other hand the vegetables look like they were literally pulled out of a garden, put directly onto a truck and brought to the store. Were they cleaned? Clearly they were not because they are often still covered in dirt. That’s probably fine, but it is interesting to note. It also means that the produce, the milk and often the meat goes bad quicker than in North America. Our refrigerator is often the victim of something we left for a day or two too long. Grocery stores, the bigger or cheaper ones anyway, are not always as quick to replace old produce so old, not quite rotting, food is sitting out, sometimes with swarms of fruit flies that need to be shoed away.

There does seem to be a greater appreciation for fresh food from the people here, from what I can tell in talking to people. I would argue that this leads to healthier diets, but what do I know? There are always many farmers’ markets selling fresh fruit, berries and vegetables on certain days of the week.

At first glance the majority of supermarkets are not too different from the average Canadian grocery store. You can buy snacks, chips, vegetables, dairy, meat, bread, etc. There is one popular item I’m very grateful is popular here. One of my most glorious moments upon arriving in Russia was coming around a grocery store aisle and going “Hey Nutella! Nutellaaaaa!!!!!” (That’s from a play right?)

The details are a bit different though. Salsa is often absent because the Russians are not big on spicy food. When I order spicy food I am often warned that it is spicy and what I am given is usually “mild” to “not spicy” (I pity the few Mexicans living in Moscow).

Lay's Crab Chips
Lay’s Crab Chips

The chip flavours are slightly different, crab being a big hit. The pop is different, root beer is absent (my girlfriend didn’t even know what that was), and something called kvas is present. It’s not really pop, I would describe it as what would’ve happened had the inventors of Coca-Cola made it not as fizzy, slightly alcoholic, and bread flavoured instead of caramel (yeah, that’s right, Coca-Cola is caramel flavoured). Peanut butter is very difficult to find, but I did it once. Maple syrup, and syrup in general, is not really a thing, but select stores have it regularly.

The dairy section is a bit more diverse. They have their own versions of things. Buttermilk is hard to find, but there’s something called “kefir” (key-FEAR) which tastes mostly like if buttermilk was thinner and you were supposed to just drink it straight. “Tvorok” is cottage cheese though less… runny? Liquidy? There is also a wide range of butter, spreads, cheeses, etc. Skim milk is not a thing, except at a few grocery stores. Even 1% is difficult to find, the norm being 2-3.5%.

Seafood is also popular, herring being one of my new favourite fish. It comes in a plastic dish and is drenched in fish oil and you just eat is straight. I like to have it with seaweed salad (morskaya kapusta, which literally translates to “cabbage of the sea”). You can get all kinds of fish, crab and lobster. My friend mentioned that in one restaurant he went to, one of their finest dishes was “Canadian lobster”. Nice job, Maritimes!

Finally, getting out. You will pay less for your groceries in Moscow if you stick to the essentials. Bread can be as cheap as 70 cents a loaf. I think I pay about half as much for fresh produce as I do in Canada. Brand name things are probably comparable.

I have not seen a self-checkout from what I can remember. This makes things less frustrating, but more personal. If you don’t speak Russian, the cashier may not be happy with you. The cashier is, however, sitting down. What!? I feel like this would make many employees in Canada much happier and is a much more reasonable system than having them stand all day just to scan things. Maybe I’m wrong.

Anyway, grocery stores in Russia. The same. But different. Thanks for reading.

GITIS Fall 2013: Понятно

Eliana Sigel-Epstein shares more about her experiences studying directing at GITIS. Visit her personal blog here for more!

Понятно (pahn- YAT – nah)

It’s strange to me that it wasn’t until the past few months that I realized how frequently Russians say Понятно. It literally means “understandable,” but it’s usually used as a question to check understanding, so it’s like asking “Got it?” but it’s used even more frequently, and isn’t quite as condescending. Understanding, and checking a person’s understanding, is becoming the theme of my experience at GITIS. I had already experienced how the simplest of tasks are made extraordinarily difficult without being able to understand the other person’s language. And now I’m trying much more complicated tasks: sitting in a classroom, trying to learn fairly complicated ideas about theatre. And then the most complicated task of all – forming friendships with other people.  How to understand a person without understanding all the words they say.

Not to mention, trying to get others to understand your artistic ideas. I am now working on three separate projects with Russian actors. And it is so hard. For the first rehearsal of each, I wrote out what I wanted to say in Russian (well, first in English, then I translated into Russian) and read it aloud at the rehearsal. Of course, I’m positive I made embarrassing errors in my translation, and sometimes I’ll come across a word that I don’t quite know how to pronounce, or I won’t be able to read my own handwriting, and it’s just awkward to be reading off a sheet of paper at a rehearsal. Voice inflection is so important in communication – especially communication in theatre, and it’s hard to do that with words in a language you’re still learning. Also, I try to communicate my ideas using simple words and sentence structures that I’ve already learned, and for me, it’s always been difficult to simplify my thoughts. After the first rehearsal, it’s almost impossible to write everything out beforehand, because a rehearsal is a living thing with unexpected problems. And the best ideas are those that come from collaboration. So how do you collaborate when one person only speaks the language 50%? How do you bounce ideas off of each other? How do you solve problems? How do you express problems in a way that is понятно? I mean, in rehearsal with American actors, I struggle to communicate with them sometimes. How do I translate the result I want from them into words they can use for their process? How do I change the way I say something that they are not understanding? How do I create an environment where we can feel free to share ideas and build on the ideas of the other person? How do we come to the same understanding of the character or the situation in the play – one that not only we share but that is in line with what the playwright wrote?

I am quickly learning that understanding is the source of all good theatre. Our master teacher’s guiding philosophy is that once you understand, everything else comes. Understanding the character and understanding the play is key. Simply understanding. “What’s happened?” he frequently asks when analyzing a student’s work. Not even “what does your character want?” or “what are the surrounding circumstances in which your character is living?” Those questions are important, but the answers come from simply understanding what is happening right now with your character. What has just happened that makes you act the way you act. And being able to distill what’s happening to the simplest, most powerful, most playable words. I frequently understand his Russian, not only because he is quite old and speaks quite slowly (he also frequently says “don’t rush” and clearly lives by that philosophy), but also because he speaks quite simply. He uses simple, straightforward sentences but each word has wisdom and truth.

So, more understanding to come – about cultural differences, about theatre, about everything.

Through a Student’s Eyes: The American Course at GITIS


This is always the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the American Course at GITIS. We say that a lot on this website along with unique and once-in-a-lifetime. It’s a big thing to say, but it’s the truth.

My relationship with IFTER and the American Course at GITIS goes back to the very beginning, before any of it had a name.

Jacqueline, Greer and Emily at GITIS

More than two-years later I can call myself part of the inaugural class of the American Course at GITIS. Our last day of class was three weeks ago and now, even more than I could have imagined, I am changed by the course.

This wasn’t my first time spending a semester in Moscow or studying acting there for that matter. In 2009 I spent a semester in the American Studio at the Moscow Art Theatre School with the National Theatre Institute. I thought I knew what to expect. There were some things that my previous experience did prepare me for, but the discoveries I made at GITIS were still endless.

So how did my life change? When I put it in words it sounds a little simple, but sometimes the simplest discoveries are the most precious. Here are some key discoveries that I took home with me.


I have always been one to be aware of my surroundings– observant of my environment and the people in it. This is key for an actor and sharpening of this awareness is something that I love about the Stanislavsky System. Though I can usually describe without trouble the wall decor of the restaurant we were in last night and at least five conversations at the tables around us I was missing something: self-awareness. This is a skill that I really built over the eleven weeks of the American Course. I learned to be aware of my body, inside and out, aware of what it could do with proper preparation. I began to learn how to tell when my body was ready for a task and if it wasn’t ready how to prepare it. I became aware of each piece of my instrument, how they work together and how many stories I can tell with each piece of me. I then became aware that putting them all together brings countless possibilities. I became more aware of my emotions, my impulses and where they come from. I became aware of my cliches and the little ticks that I have that make me me. It all seems so simple, because we live in our bodies every day, but it’s a never ending world to discover.


Working in an ensemble is a strength of mine. I am an actor’s actor. I like to give on stage, to focus on my partner. I’m not too fond of monologues. Ensemble training is something else I love about Russian Theatre training. Guess what? Monologues aren’t going anywhere. Guess what else? You don’t have to be responsible for them any more! Ready for a secret: at GITIS we worked on the concept that your partner is always responsible for your next line. If your next line is a monologue then, well, they must be pretty powerful to spark that monologue inside of you. Think about it: when you say something to someone you have a reason for saying what you are saying in that time and place to that person. They may not say a word in a scene (in life or on stage) to spark 200 words from you, but somehow they do.


I’m a curious person. I ask ‘why’ a lot. I’ve always been analytical and have taken my faire share of analysis classes, but never before like this. No matter how many questions I ask they are never enough to analyse text to the fullest. Even before the first line of the first scene in a play there are a lot of questions to answer. Sometimes you can’t find the answer for a question you have at the top of the script until Act IV, but you have to find it and you will. Something as simple as the time of day or the direction the wind is blowing can completely change a scene. You’d be surprised what is hiding deep inside that script. The more you discover, the more questions you have. Now when I read a scene or even look at a painting I am hit with a million questions and find myself on a search for just under a million answers.


Daniel and Greer at St. Basil’s Cathedral

This experience wasn’t only life changing in the classroom, but culturally too. An average of three times a week we would go to the theatre. We would see professional shows, student shows: comedies, dramas, operas, movement theatre, classical, avant-garde. We were filled with ideas and inspiration. We could apply what we learned in the classroom to many real-life situations. And while sometimes I wished my Russian was stronger while I was at the theatre there is something magical about watching Romeo and Juliet in their balcony scene and forgetting Shakespeare’s words for a moment just to feel the heat and the emotion that runs through that moment.

Everyday in Moscow is an adventure. From discovering new museums, parks and restaurants to getting off at the wrong metro stop just to see what’s there or going to the grocery store. Being immersed in a new culture is such an exciting way to learn about you, your own culture, what it is to be human and what it is to be part of any culture. It’s also a great way to find an adventure around the corner. Talk about a great way to add tools to your tool box for building a character, all while building great memories!

Now that the course is completed and I am back in the United States I feel a little like a different person, okay not different, just a better, more aware, more skilled, more thoughtful me. I am continuing some of the training and exercises that I really connected with at GITIS on my own now that I am home. I have a lot of tools that I can’t wait to try out in building my next role. I’m also working at IFTER making preparations for the next American Course at GITIS and looking forward to sending a second class to this amazing program! Want to know more about the program or what is happening at IFTER? Please feel free to contact me at I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for reading!


Read Greer’s bio here.

Interested in The American Course at GITIS? Get more info and apply!



Student Life: “LIKE OMG HOW IS MOSCOW?!”

This week’s Student Life post comes from Daniel Barnes. Thanks Daniel for sharing your experience with us!


Upon arrival in Moscow, I was swarmed with questions, but the most popular one was definitely “OMG, what is Moscow like?!”  Okay, so I wasn’t exactly swarmed with questions, but this still counts.  I must say that Moscow isn’t exactly what I expected.  You might ask, “Daniel, what did you expect?”  To be honest, I think I thought it would be lots of smoke, lots of vodka, and lots of people telling me I need to learn Russian (in Russian).  So what is Moscow?  Lots of smoke, lots of vodka, and lots of people telling me I need to learn Russian…BUT it is so much more.  I know, I know I have only been living here for a short time, but I have done my best to expose myself to the city and culture, and I think that it is beautiful.  I (hope) can safely speak for our group and say that we thoroughly enjoyed our experience here, and a large part of that is due to how great the culture is here.

Daniel entering Red Square for the first time.


For starters, the city is beautiful.  What I find fascinating about European cities in general is the juxtaposition of centuries-old buildings and monuments with contemporary architecture.  Russia already has very unique historical architecture, but pair that with beautiful skyscrapers and the most gorgeous metro stations I have ever seen.  Seriously!  If it wasn’t TOTALLY ILLEGAL (or mostly illegal, as I found out today) I would snap some pictures of how beautiful these metro stations are.  The first time I went to Red Square and saw St. Basil’s cathedral, I was so pumped. I should probably remind you that I am THE ONLY ONE of the American group that hasn’t been to Moscow previously, so they were eager to see my reaction.  I was trying to be super cool (and you thought it came naturally), but I think my excitement beat that out.  It really is thrilling to see historical landmarks in person, even in America, but the beauty of the city is that as you look at the domes on the cathedral and walk the vast cobblestone plaza, you can also turn your head to the left and see a huge shopping mall and probably a McDonald’s (Makdonalds).
Trying to immerse oneself in foreign culture is also very difficult.  In America it is not uncommon to walk a city street and hear ten different languages.  However, anyone that has ever been to a foreign country, even for a split second, knows how difficult it can be to do the simplest of tasks without knowing the language.  Granted, our group is learning Russian like crazy, but there are still problems that occur almost daily.  It just happens.  Though, I think I can successfully buy toilet paper and apple juice comfortably now and tell the grumpy cashier, “No, I don’t actually want a new plastic bag today, thank you.”  Sometimes she even says goodbye.  Score!  I think we’re soul mates, really.  Truthfully, though, it gets easier to live here and immerse myself every day, and I’m truly grateful to have this experience.  I love it here!
Oh, PS, Moscow is eight hours ahead of the US (EST), so as I’m writing this, you’re probably enjoying a late lunch.  I hope you’re having some cabbage and buckwheat.  Maybe some pickles.
The author at 1:42.
До свидания!
Даниил, Данила, Даня
(There are about five million ways to say my name.)

Student Life: Cultural Excursion to Yaroslavl

Where the Volga and Kotorosl Rivers meet.

A huge part of being an international student are the cultural experiences outside the classroom. As part of our program this semester we offered students to take an optional weekend excursion to Yaroslavl.

Yaroslavl is located about 250 km north-east of Moscow where the Kotorosl and Volga Rivers meet. The city was founded in 1010 and is now one of the largest cities on the Volga with a population of about 600,000. It’s a beautiful relaxing town full of history with plenty to see and do.

Volkov Theatre

We arrived by train on Friday night and were greeted by our host family with open arms. Anton, who was our guide for most of the weekend took us on a small tour by car as soon as we arrived before taking everyone to their homes for the weekend. The girls stayed with Anton’s mother-in-law, Lyuba and her son Vlad in their apartment. Our one boy who went on the trip stayed with Anton, his wife Tanya, and their two year old daughter. After a late supper and plenty of conversation (in a creative mix of Russian and English) everyone was off to bed to rest up for sightseeing the next day.Saturday started with a wonderful traditional Russian breakfast before walking tour of Yaroslavl lead by Tanya and Anton. The first stop was the oldest theatre in Russia! The building was closed so we couldn’t see inside. There were no plays playing that evening so we went over to the symphony to see what was happening there. As luck would have it,  there was a concert that night and instead of being held in the concert hall it was being held in the Volkov Theatre. We bought tickets knowing only two things: the concert was in the theatre and the symphony was playing Rachmaninov.

Daniel, Greer, Jacqueline and Eliana with our hostess and guide Tanya (center) in front of Успенский собор

And on we went with our day visiting parks, churches, and markets. We went to the Yaroslavl History Museum and to the Medical History Museum and took a boat tour down the Volga River. We had dinner at one of Tanya and Anton’s favorite restaurants and all rushed home to change to go to the concert.We walked into the theatre and it was clear that tonight was a special night. People were even more dressed up than usual and there was a special chatter in the air. When we went inside we learned that the concert was indeed very special. It was part of the Moscow Easter Festival and was being performed by the Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra and Choir conducted by Valery Gergiev. This was much more than we had expected! Everyone was so excited especially because it was impossible for students to get tickets for the concerts in Moscow! After the concert we all had tea and cookies at Lyuba’s apartment and visited with each other.

Sunday was filled with more adventure! We started again with a great Russian breakfast before Anton and Vlad took us to the Space Museum. The museum is very new (built for Yaroslavl’s 1,000 anniversary in 2010). Yaroslavl is the home of the first Russian female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, and a lot of the museum was dedicated to her career. After the museum we continued our walking tour from the day before seeing more of Yaroslavl by foot.

Spaco-Preobrazhensky Monastery

Our tour took us to Спасо-Преображенский монастырь (Transfiguration of the Savior Monastery) which was founded in the 12th century (as more of a fort than a place of worship) and are the oldest buildings in Yaroslavl. The top of the belfry there is also the best place to get a view of the city. We continued through more beautiful parks, over historical bridges and down the banks of the river to the eternal flame and then on to dinner. After dinner we all went back to the space museum to see a film at the planetarium. Our last hour in Yaroslavl before we caught the train back was spent with our wonderful host family laughing and talking and drinking champaign to celebrate our weekend together.

See more about the trip and what we are doing here from a student’s point of view on Eliana’s blog! 

Student Life: Housing

Now that you have met all of our students and now that they have all arrived in Moscow, let’s take a look at student life in GITIS’ International Dorm.

The building overlooks a park and is surrounded by small apartment buildings. It’s a quiet spot, but is close to a few grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and most importantly a metro station (Marina Roshcha.) It is even walking distance from a large mall with a very large supermarket and a movie theatre. We are also walking distance from the Satiricon Theatre.

The building is very secure. It is gated and has staff on hand at all times. Only international students live here. There is rehearsal/classroom space on the bottom floor and all students live on the higher floors.

Let’s take a look at where the students live. Housing is divided into flats. Each flat in the dorm houses four students and has two bedrooms, a bath and a large kitchen. Take a look.


One of the two bedrooms. The second bed is behind the wardrobe on the right. The photo is taken from the door. There is a third wardrobe, a mirror and a coat/shoe rack to the left of the desks. (not pictured)

One side of the kitchen

View of kitchen from hallway

Bath. Yes, that is a heated towel rack!

As you can see there is plenty of space in each flat and everything a foreign student may need to make Moscow their temporary home. This semester further updates will be made to the kitchen and bath as part of the expansion of GITIS’ international programs.  We will be sure to post the end result!