‘I used to dream about escaping my ordinary life, but my life was never ordinary. I had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was.’
Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
A week ago, I moved to Russia. A woman with a strong aversion to the cold moved to one of the chilliest places in the world at the onset of winter… Well, I wanted a change! Why Russia? I had initially hoped to move the Middle East, but I fell in love with Saint Petersburg during my 3-week visit earlier this year. I became captivated by the abundance of ornately-decorated churches and museums (my visit to The Hermitage sealed the deal) and welcomed by helpful people who just keep talking in Russian until you understand what they’re saying! I like the food. I feel safe here. This is the most important element for me: feeling free to walk about alone and just be. There was something about my brisk morning walks across a plethora of bridges followed by a smooth flat white that made me feel at home. It seems so simple, right? But isn’t that what it’s all about: finding pleasure and feeling content in one’s daily life. Oh, and being able to visit The Hermitage at will! On a deeper level, I needed to turn the page.
I spent the majority of this year working on my thesis, which consumed every aspect of my being. My specific area of research focused on the relationship between state sovereignty and the use of drones, and how said relationship interacts within the parameters of international law. It’s a fascinating subject, particularly the philosophical concept of sovereignty. But it was challenging because I lost hope in the very legal institutions I was researching. I just wrote about 600 words explaining further, but I’m still not ready to process what happened, let alone share it. It’ll come. In short, it became apparent that my research was more of a passion project than something I would use to further my career. This led to a deep sense of guilt about the cost and use of time, and a much larger question about the purpose of my life. So, voilà, I submitted and passed, and here I am.
Despite only receiving my passport back 15 hours before I left, I had been planning my move for months. My London-based friends were bombarded with WhatsApp messages offering up everything I owned: handbags, cutlery, dresses, vases and pretty much everything else I had (except my books, which I’ll be reunited with next month). I arrived in Russia with one large suitcase filled with a few books, winter clothes (which I now realise are for Russian autumn…), footwear and bed linen. Minimalism, as always. Clothes are a necessity to keep me warm (and prevent me from being arrested for public indecency) and books are my passion, so they’re keepers. I made the choice of giving away some beautiful crockery, well-made clothes and electrics I know longer need to people who would enjoy and appreciate them (and to charity), rather than spend a small fortune transporting them to a place where they have no use, and I don’t like clutter. Despite my attachment to material possessions being non-existent, I kept telling myself ‘I’m packing up my life’. But items that fill a suitcase aren’t my life. Besides, my new flat is fully-furnished; I have everything I need. Well, almost… Since visiting The Hermitage in September, I’ve had my eye on some rather indulgent espresso cups, which my flat is ‘missing’. Maybe…
Moving here has also been yet another experience in nationality privilege. I’m often intrigued by the naivety of those who think the ability to travel is a question of money. For those of us travelling on European, Canadian, American and Japanese passports, the ability to move between countries with the same ease of changing buses affords us opportunities most cannot fathom. On those odd occasions when we require visas, as I did, things work seamlessly. I didn’t just randomly relocate; this has been months in the making and required a sequence of bureaucratic box ticking. The moment I arrived in Moscow, I had Russian-speaking assistance. And I was safe with my driver who was to accompany me throughout the day. We arrived at the migration centre and stood outside a heavily-guarded building whilst the men before me with travel documents from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China were questioned and their documents scrutinised. I took out my passport, barely opened before being waved in. Someone came to greet me and within 20 minutes, I had my documents and was back in the car for another 2 hours heading for a steaming bowl of borscht and some sightseeing in Moscow before boarding the train to Saint Petersburg. Grateful yet a deep sense of unease. But, I made it.
There’s something about Russia that reminds me of Iran: the endless barrage of negativity and fearmongering from my government and media contrasted by my human experience. I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t violations of rights in either country, which would be both untrue and disrespectful to those affected by said violations. Of course, bad things happen here, and that’s not ok. They happen everywhere. But the very notion that we can deem specific countries as being good or evil is utterly ridiculous. I believe my abnegation of political dishonesty aids my ability to think critically and see beyond what we’re told and, mostly, question the intention behind such vilification. This is why it is vital to travel and see for yourself. If we take a moment to delve further into the actions of the British government abroad or look at the acts stemming from the foreign policy of Obama, a man many treat as some kind of demigod, and you’ll very quickly be faced with the ineluctable reality that ‘evil’ has many different faces.
So, here I am, typing away in my warm flat with some sencha and a yoghurt. I’ve only been in Saint Petersburg for 7 days, but it feels like home. Last night, I wrote to a friend saying ‘I feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be at this time in my life’, and through the entire process, this is what kept me calm. I am not here against my will, this is my choice. The main question people ask is ‘how long will you stay?’. The reality is I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll be here for 6 months, perhaps it’ll be closer to 6 years. I’ll just have to wait and see what eventuates. What is certain, however, is that every moment will count: my private Russian lessons begin in 9 days, the Mariinsky will become my 2nd home, I’ll go ice-skating all winter, learn to make borscht and discover every room of The Hermitage. This is the beginning of my new chapter, and I’m filled with excitement and anticipation.