Wednesday 12 September 2012

Living with ghosts

Nobody told me that when you sign on for this Expat life, you need to be ready to live with ghosts.

Not the shrieking, wailing, chain-clanking kind that knock on your doors and windows keeping you awake at night.  No, these are gentler than that; they are the echoes of people you’ve met during your expat tenure in this city who, since you’ve arrived, have packed up and moved on, leaving you with some memories, an email address, a skype number, and the hope that your paths might cross again in the future.

I suspect that most cities with a sizeable expat community go through exactly the same process but I’m not sure they have such tangible ghosts; serial expats amongst my friends tell me that Moscow seems to attract a certain kind of person who, once gone, often leaves a space that is hard to fill.  Living here is not necessarily the easy option and many Moscow expats are – in my experience -  adventurous, open, and willing to reach out to others who might be going through a difficult time, in recognition of that fact that in this challenging city it could be any of us needing help next time around.

It seems to me that the concept of ‘paying it forward’ is alive and well in the Moscow expat community.  When I arrived here nearly 3 years ago I experienced this for myself, to the extent that I was sometimes suspicious of it.  ‘Why are they being so nice?’ I wondered.  ‘What do they WANT?’ (I come from London, don’t forget.  You can live next door to a person for years there before you actually get round to saying hello...)

Here, however, people acknowledge that whilst this is a fascinating place to live, Moscow is not without challenges and many try in any way they can to help new arrivals have soft landings. In itself, this is wonderful, but it does mean that when, in the expat way of things, those people who reached out to you move on to their next posting, they are missed.

For some reason I see these ghosts more often in the Autumn.  It’s probably because the it’s the start of a new school year and the summer change-over – the leavers leaving, and the new arrivals arriving, both in time for the beginning of term – is pretty much complete.

So I walk past houses now empty of a good friend, past playgrounds no longer ringing to the calls of my children’s playmates, and catch a glimpse of someone in a restaurant who could be the identical twin of someone I used to know, and I feel the Moscow expat ghosts walking beside me...


  1. Now it must be your turn to be the safety net for all those who are newly arrived. How bewildered they must be and how knowledgeable you must seem to them. It's time to do good deeds.

  2. I'm sure that serial expats must get used to this. You can't possibly go through life being this sad about everyone who leaves?

  3. I remember this being quite painful when I lived in Brussels. I ended up always asking people, in a roundabout way, how long they were staying - not that it would have affected potential friendships! Back in London, I've tried to stay as open and friendly as the expat community always was. We have even said hello to all the neighbours (but some haven't said hello back!)

  4. I still feel really sad about my friend who left here in July. It definitely leaves a gap in your life that is hard to fill, especially when your children are her children's friends too.

  5. Irene, I don't think it takes long to acquire local knowledge here which is why we're all so happy to pass it on and feel useful!

    EPM, you know, I think they do get used to it - but that it doesn't necessarily get any easier.

    DD, you were probably quite discrete - here, the 'how long are you staying?' question usually happens in the first 5 minutes of meeting people!

    NVG, it is hard, I agree. Need to keep putting ourselves out there, though - otherwise life can get very lonely!

  6. Ghosts... that's a good way of putting it.

  7. Really well said. After Dubai's crash a few years ago, people literally disappeared over night. My DH's industry (aviation) seems to keep people here, but other sectors such as construction were hit badly. It's bouncing back now, but I'm always on the look out!

  8. I've never lived abroad but having moved house (and changed schools) more times than I care to remember as a child (following an ambitious father's many promotions!) I can vouch for something similar on the home front, especially when I visit one of the places where we used to live. My sister, for example, still lives in Wakefield (where I went to secondary school) and I'm constantly turning my head in half-recognition of someone as they walk past in the street... which gets me some rather odd looks, as you'd expect!

  9. Irene...potty mummy has become a wonderful source of information! But more importantly a fun person to enjoy and get to know as I am a fresh expat.

    Boy, do I feel like I got caught! First five minutes of meeting someone it is how long have you been here and when are you leaving? Maybe I should be so bold to!

    Potty Mummy...your words remind me of a Dr. suess quote..."Don't cry because its over. Smile because it happened." how wonderful these ghosts left such an imprint on your heart. They must have been some wonderful people! Just like you...

  10. I must admit, I have found ex pats v friendly, open, warm & welcoming & always willing to help in every country I've lived in. I think once you've been an ex pat, partic a serial one, you know what it's like & naturally ease others in & don't wnt them to feel like you did when you 1st arrived!


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