Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Ill-fitting shoes...

If you're not a seasoned ex-pat who moves from one country to another as a matter of course, or young and reckless without any baggage, making a significant move for the first time in your life can be a very interesting process.

I knew in advance that logistically moving to Russia would be a challenge; simply sorting out the paperwork is proving a bit of a marathon. And I have been both experiencing and anticipating the emotional fall-out for a while now.

But what I hadn't expected was how draining it can be dealing with other people's negative reaction to the news that we're going. I've had all sorts of responses; from the commiserations offered by our solicitor (thanks, by the way; I really needed to hear how your friend got drugged and robbed after an ill-advised drink in a shady bar in Moscow - which I suspect he shouldn't have been in anyway, his being a family man and all...), to cautious optimisim expressed by our families, who whilst they don't want us to go, know we've been working towards this for a while and also that we'll only be a four hour flight away.

Most people are great; supportive, excited for us, whilst at the same time understanding that it's going to be a wrench. These are the ones who ask 'What do you need from me to make this easier?' They understand that we have enough to deal with without endlessly examining the down-side; we're going, we have to, and that's an end to it. And who knows? Hell, we might even - gasp! - enjoy it!

There are others, however, who can't see a bright side. Russia - Moscow - to them is the grey utilitarian totalist state of the Cold War of their childhood. It's freezing for months at a time, it's a city of food shortages and queues, there are no bright colours, and the Mafia are everywhere. Why on earth would anyone want to go and live there?

I don't blame people for thinking this way when this image is perpetuated by news rooms and fiction writers all over the world. Admittedly it was a few years ago, but on one memorable occassion Husband (then Tall Skinny Dutch Boyfriend) phoned me from Moscow and I mentioned in passing how cold it had looked there when I watched an item on the news about Russia earlier that evening. The reporter was standing in front of a backdrop of window opening onto a wintry sky with flakes of snow swirling prettily around. Husband was nonplussed. "What on earth are you talking about?" he asked. "Cold? It's 20 degrees C here!"

Well, anyway, my point is that common perceptions are often wrong, and you can't always believe what you see on the news - even when it's the BBC. (Or is that 'especially'?) And also that these negative reactions - which I understand are invariably about the individual I'm talking to and their thoughts on how they would cope with such a move, rather than on a rational assessment of our situation as a family and why this is all necessary, for the best, and actually quite exciting - are so easily made. I've certainly been guilty of that in the past; it's how we put things in context, how we relate to other human beings; by imagining ourselves walking in their shoes. The problem is that right now, for a lot of people, the thought of walking in our shoes scares them witless - and they say so.

But experiencing this from the other side for a change (it's normally we who are staying put whilst others go off and live in unusual places) has shown me that whilst imagining walking in another's shoes is definitely a good thing, it doesn't always do to tell people how you think those shoes might feel, that you don't like the colour, and that they're not your style at all.

I'm wondering; is this something that others who've made this type of a move have experienced too?


  1. My experience was either Chicago? What's in Chicago? Or envy. This was great when people came to visit - usually their first trip to Chicago - and they fell in love with the city. 'Wow. You're so lucky to live here. Why on earth would you ever want to come back? We wouldn't...' Yep, it is a great city. Yes I was lucky to have the opportunity to live here. But the world is large and I for one would relish to opportunity to move home - and then maybe have the experience of living somewhere totally different. Like Moscow perhaps. Best of luck! It's gonna be a challenge. There will be many things that you simply cannot anticipate. But it will be an amazing adventure. And i for one can't wait to hear all about it.

  2. I've had mainly positive or indeed envious comments about our move, probably because people have a very glamorous image of New York (which isn't necessarily accurate either). The only negative reactions have been people who can't believe we are uprooting our home and moving halfway round the world with two small children; most people are too polite to say this, but it is implied, particularly when they ask about what we are going to do about schooling etc.

    I have to say that any 'advice' people offer is probably best ignored. For example, lots of (mainly medical) people who warned us about how Americans have such a work ethic, my husbad was going to have to work so hard, I would never see him and so on. Not true at all. His hours here are 9-5, better than London, and he doesn't have to work on weekends. Also that I wouldn't be able to work - also not true, I now have a permit. It's a bit like having babies - you have to sort of close your ears to what people say, because only you will know what it is really like when you get there.

  3. I've never had this experience, I'm afraid. I moved about 40 minutes from my parents to where my husband and I now live.

    However, I do have some friends who are missionaries and moved from the U.S. to Russia about two years ago. As far as I know, they love it, but before they left you should have seen the looks they got from people.

    "You're going ...where?!" people would say to them. "Isn't it really cold and dark there all.the.time?"

  4. oh, God, how can I have missed this! Russia. All I can think of is the beauty of Red Square and the architecture and the wonderful literature. Oh, and the cold (sorry!)

  5. I remember wanting to hug with relief one woman whose response was "what an opportunity! what an opportunity!" and was so positive about our move, in the midst of a few understandably reserved reactions.

    I was devastated by the schoolteacher friend who told me "you can't replace a good education" with a bit of a sniff, and then when I tried to engage with the issue, by pointing out that America might have good schools too, just changed the subject and wouldn't talk any further about it. Of course she tapped into my deepest maternal fears, but guess what, at this stage, the schools here are, I think, BETTER than the one my children left (classes 2/3 or even 1/2 the size).

    I think you just have to hold onto all the things you know to be true about what an adventure it's going to be. I don't want to sound smug, but living abroad really does give you and your children a wider perspective on life. Not a more comfortable one. A wider one. Depends whether you see life as an opportunity to get really comfortable, or as something more.

  6. Nineteen years ago this week I moved to London. I had quit my job, packed a bag, bought a ticket and boarded a plane. I knew no-one, had last visited the city aged 16 (and then fleetingly en route to Scotland - long story), and was armed only with a pretty flimsy CV and extremely limited funds.

    Two things to note: firstly, my greatest encouragement came from my parents, and for that I will always be eternally grateful; and secondly, it was by far the best thing I ever did - aside from having children of course!

    My advice (having also moved across hemispheres growing up) is to be selective with your hearing. The wealth of opportunities and experiences that come with any change are something many people can only envy, regardless how they express themselves.

    It is up to you to make the most of it!

    LCM x

  7. When I first moved abroad, I was fifteen and my best friend cried. My other best friend went white and threw up all night. The family cried. Most people seemed horrified. So, yeah, I think that's a normal reaction. It seems to be very weather-based, though. We were going to Scotland, ie cold, ie bad. Friends who were going to Spain got more positive reactions.

  8. 'common perceptions are often wrong, and you can't always believe what you see on the news'

    i accord absolutely 100%. not for moving country, but for doing things a different way. home educating and not school. the negative comments come from people who 'know' about (insert your difference/ moscow/ home education) from what they read in the newspapers, are fed by the government, and the images constructed in the media.

    i suspect anyone who does anything away from the norm attracts a wide range of 'ooohh! wouldn't do that!'

    bah! do what you feel is right for you all and enjoy it!

    just make sure you blog it, girl.

  9. A bit like me announcing my last pregnancy (see post). Given that I was ancient and it was unexpected, most people were secretly horrified, which didn't help at all. I found that if I sounded pleased/excited when I told people, it almost silenced any negativity they were thinking of conveying.
    And I'll trade your Russian winter for the oncoming Chicago one any day!

  10. PS. Don't forget to have a look through the Expat Women web site for other expats when you get there.

  11. Nicola, no worries on that last - just watch this space (I can't help myself...)

    NVG, great advice, although are you trying to tell me NY isn't all glamour and shoes?

    Lisa, those comments your friends got sound familiar indeed!

    Milla, lots of great buildings, true. And lots of cold...

    Thanks Iota - and this is why I know you are a nicer person than me. I wouldn't have been able to resist saying something constructive, like 'Oh, so you've lived there then? How long for?' in the full knowledge that she hadn't...

    Thanks LCM - and one question; where did you arrive from?

    Mwa, so much is tied up with the weather, isn't it?

    Grit, no argument there with the perceptions remark, or quarrel with the suggestion I blog it. (How else am I going to spend those long, dark, freezing, lonely days... Oh bugger. I'm doing it now too...)

    EPM, 'ancient' is a relative word. I strongly suspect we are the same age, and Boy #2 is younger than your youngest...

  12. Are you moving to Russia then? ;-) I grew up overseas- that sort of 'constructive' comment doesn't get to me anymore. Which is good, as when I tell people my mum is in Ethiopia and my dad in Malawi, I get a look of sheer shock that I am so white!!

  13. I hear you. Oh yes. People aren't frightened to tell you why you are making a mistake, based on very little actual knowledge. We had one person ask us if we had to take flak jackets with us (what!? as if we would seriously take 2 toddlers into a war zone). But, I figure it is like most things in life, people are often critical when it isn't the same choice that they would make. Choosing your babies names? How many people paused ever so slightly before going 'how lovely' leaving you knowing that they didn't like it.

    Ultimately it doesn't matter. They aren't living your life, you are. But it is exhausting, and right at the time when you could do with not being exhausted. We used to laugh about it, saying there are reasons that we married each other, noone else would think our plan was a good idea. But it has been for us, a great idea. And yours will be for you too.

    Now is the time to do it, before school gets really serious and before your kids really resent being uprooted. When we went back to the UK earlier in the summer the thing that struck me the most was how little anything had changed. It was as if we hadn't been away for longer than a month.

    And, if there is anything we can do to make it a bit easier for you, do let us know. x

  14. PS - the cold can be fun! Snow and small boys is a match made in heaven. Make sure you take some Green & Blacks hot chocolate powder out with you.

  15. Given our family circumstances at the time, nobody could understand why we moved across the world to Australia when we did. All I can say is it felt right to us and has proved by and large to have been a very good move. Look forward and not backwards and make the most of every opportunity that comes your way.

    PS. However I will be really green with envy when you are knee deep in snow over Christmas while we are sweltering, probably the only time I look back sadly - but it only lasts for a couple of days and then I'm fine again ;-)

  16. I envy you, actually. Maybe not the moving to Russia bit (I would love to visit Moscow and St Petersburg sometime but the fact my son has a different surname to mine is apparently a stumbling block to getting a visa) but living elsewhere is something that's becoming more and more appealing to me!

  17. Oh enjoy, enjoy! I'm just so envious. You've reminded me of all the negative comments I got when I moved (single at that time) to Belfast in the early eighties. I have loads of relatives there so it never seemed an issue to me and I couldn't understand the comments that "It probably won't be as bad as all that". As all what? I had a fantastic 4 years there and still have very good friends in Belfast.

    When I was a child, my parents moved with us all in tow to Kuala Lumpur and later to Jamaica. There were six children by the time we moved to Jamaica.

    I think Russia will be a fabulous experience for you all. It uis such a huge country, so much to explore. I think must reread "And quiet flows the Don" - can't remeber whether it was grim or not but I know it and its sister books were unputdownable at the time I first read them.

  18. Hello Potty Mummy
    Just do it your own way. In my experience people talk a load of absolute nonsense about most things. Your moving to Russia is so intense for you and your family - others have no idea of the bureaucracy and emotional upheaval involved in moving country - and they just won't be able to relate at all unless they have done similar themselves. And that doesn't matter. Let them deal with it in their own way.
    I live in kazakhstan now (our 5th country in 10 years - talk about gluttons for punishment!), and have just met a very nice woman who has just moved down here from Moscow. She might have some great tips for living there - i think they were there about 8 years.
    The sisterhood is strong in expat world and I am sure you will find a hugely supportive and helpful network once you get there. Although some elements of expat life can be excruciating, it is hard to do without it. And if you plan to make lots of Russian friends, just get studying your language and you will be fine.
    If you want to chat about anything, just email gemowat at gmail dot com.
    Good luck.

  19. DG, I can see that that sort of background would be a bit of a conversation stopper!

    Thanks Brit. G&B is already on order at the whole-salers, of course. And flak jackets? They really said that?

    Sharon, don't worry, I'm unlikely to post pictures of snowy Christmas - our parents are relaxed, but not so relaxed that we're likely to get away with spending Christmas with THEIR grandchildren out of the country...

    Liz, a change is as good as a rest and all that... (and don't talk to me about visa paperwork - am just glad I decided to change my name to my married one when I renewed my passport...)

    GPM, it's hilarious isn't it, how people can be? I remember being at a wedding in Prague a couple of years back when an Austrian guy (oh so cosmopolitan, me) asked me how I coped with living in such a lawless city as London...

    BBB, thanks so much for commenting and for the tips - I may well be in touch once we have a final move date etc. Nervous, grasping at any help offered, me? Not at all...

  20. I think what you want to do is amazing - and exciting.

    Sometimes negative comments are made because people don't know how to say they'll miss you - and that will worry about you.

    Of course it will be a challenge over there - but to immerse yourself in a totally different world/culture is a fantastic thing to do.

    You only live once.I hope you have an incredible time out there.

  21. How exciting to hear of your move to Moscow! I have fond memories of the city from business trips there in the 90's - in some ways it reminds me of New York, in its energy, inequality and ebullience - but the people can be so much more courteous. What an adventure - you're lucky to have new opportunities. I am looking forwards to hearing all about it on your blog!

  22. You'll be just fine and it will be a wonderful experience. All I can say is have an open mind and be flexible. Also bring a warm coat!

    PS -- can I put this on expat mums? You're one of us now, you know

  23. I also think people are often quite conservative & unadventurous. Many opt for the safe harbour rather than the open seas. It's frightening & bold & people often take the easy option. Negative comments are often a need to justify one's own choice, which is to stay at home, not strike out & do something different. It can be quite threatening. Well done for 'going for it' you won't regret it.

  24. People like to stay put in their comfortable (well, maybe not really) surroundings. I should say, familiar and maybe dull surroundings. They are scared of the unknown and anything that reeks of discomfort and misadventure. They don't see the opportunity for the fun and the excitement of it and all the wonder blog fodder that you will have for us. ThatÅ› the least that you will get out of it. It will be an experience of a lifetime that few of us get the opportunity for and those who don't grab that chance are to cowardly to take it.

  25. Jayne, thanks for commenting - and being so positive (much needed, I can tell you!)

    MaL, hello! And I totally agree you with you Moscow in the mid-90's being like New York (how funny you visited then too). It's less so now, but still really exciting - and extremely bloggable.

    Thames, what's mine is yours and all that (blog-based, anyway) - go ahead!

    Thanks, Paradise. Wise words to add to the fridge for times of stress.

    Thanks Irene. (Henceforth you can call me Galactica or something similarly amazonian...)

  26. Yes! first a move to china in our twenties straight after we got married, i could read the 'i give that marriage 2 years' thought as clearly as if they'd said it out loud.

    and Yes! to moving to Paris, 'how wonderful! how lucky! so jealous! how marvellous!' when all i could think was, 'i don't want to go i want to stay in my lovely house that i love with my lovely friends and my lovely school, and i KNOW living in France and let me tell you, easy, lovely, gorgeous, romantic it aint...'

    big emotional rollercoaster, especially prior to the move as you leave what you know, big learning curve when you first arrive, big adjustment, etc etc, but hopefully big(ish) bucks to soften the blow!

    the upside for your kids is HUGE. they learn that life is out there and it's not confined to pushy london schools, test results, neurotic mothers tutoring their kids to within an inch of their is kids from different countries, different languages, sights, smells, sounds, experiences...

    it's cool! (altho bloody hard, often)

  27. I'm late to the party on this one - sorry, been caught up in various bits and pieces.
    As you know we moved to the US 6 years ago and people were mixed - they were jealous on the one hand (Oh, all that fabulous sunshine!) but also pointed out how far from friends, family and KULTURE we would be (fair cop, guv). I found it pretty hard to adjust at first but now that I'm here I am so glad I came. Not necessarily because this town is the last place I want to live, but because I've grown so much from the experience and my children have grown up somewhere beautiful and amazing. And one can always go home again.
    Other people's reactions are just that - their stuff.
    You grasp bravely at life - you only get one and you have to reach out for as much of it as you possibly can. I love it that you let your old dresses go to find new dances to go to, leaving your body free to find new balls to attend - go on, I'm sure it is going to twirl joyfully with curiosity and discovery through Russia. Can't wait for the posts.

  28. Hi all

    Im new to the site. really looking forward to meeting new people, seeing what they have to say and just really chilling on some social network other than facebook. bleh. like i said, i am me, now who are you?

    Keep smiling, Dennis from [url=]Personal Loans[/url] website!


Go on - you know you want to...