France and Them: Expats, Migrants, Refugees

I am not someone who picks up on hot social topics, let alone politics. An expat for the last 10+ years, I don’t feel entitled to meddle with internal affairs of the countries I happen to live in. I am coming from a place way too big for things to change, so I know that great expectations often lead to big disillusionment. Plus, I am a millennial and by now, after hundreds of expensive consultants’ reports conducted on millennials, everyone should know that we only mind our own business and our own benefit.

One thing that makes me write this post: I love France. I have chosen to live (and pay my taxes) here, after having lived in Helsinki, London, Istanbul, South Korea, Munich and a couple of other places.  It costed me multiple relocations (at my own expense), troubles of residence permit and a 30% salary cut once I moved out of Germany. And I am perfectly happy about it. Sure, paying 53% of my salary in taxes doesn’t make me French. But it does entitle me to have an opinion on the subject as vital to the country and as close to my heart is immigration.

In my opinion, immigration is good for France. Take me. I am a holder of an exquisite European Blue Card residence permit, the one reserved for the highly skilled, talented or in other ways rare workforce. I work for a multinational, and because of the nature of my job, I don’t compete with the local labour force, i.e. French people working for the French customers. I do, however, pay my taxes here. This makes everyone happy: I live in Paris, France gets 53% of my income, and I don’t take anything from the local labour market. It is a situation many countries would like to have. In fact, back in the days when I lived in Germany with a similar arrangement, German immigration sercvices used to send me letters, in English – people, in English! – to make sure I am doing okay and happy with the system. Germany also paid me a lot more, for the same job I am doing here. And yet I left for France.

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Homeland Blues

It has been ten years since I left Russia.

I did not leave because I wanted to leave. My key motivation in taking a pair of boxes, a Siberian cat and moving to Helsinki was to explore the world. I wanted to travel, to get to know countries, to meet interesting people, to see different things with different eyes. I was not running away from something I did not like. Instead, I was flying towards something I loved even though I have not seen it yet. And, looking back, and looking around, I think it is very important, to fly towards something you love.

I have rarely looked back. Since I left, I have been to Russia only twice: to meet my mom, who was there for some of our family affairs, and for one of my best friends’ wedding. That’s before I graduated from INSEAD and took my current job. Up to this moment, I have never worked in Russian. Back in the days, when I was hired to do commodity trading at 18, English was my only asset, and I have been working with foreign counterparts since then.

I did not really know what to expect from my first business trip Russia. I opened up my first call with my Russian team by saying: “Look, there are two options here. First, I speak English and you think that I am pretentious. Second, I speak Russian and you think I am, well, slow.” – “Slow! Slow is so much better!” – cheered my Russian team.

I absolutely loved it. People at the office, customer meetings, even the taxi drivers and traffic jams, universally hateful things, I was embracing it all. And, of course, my Moscow friends. Russia gave me energy unparalleled to any other country in the world. And, also, the last thing I have expected from coming here: a sense of belonging.

I could not help but wondering how my life would unfold had I stayed  here. Russia is many things to many people but some of them are common and unique. Soviet cartoons and movies. The fact that people you meet for the first – and probably the last – time can suddenly care about you. Transactional caring sort of thing, like an old lady in the subway who wants you to take her seat because you look tired. Car stickers: the last one that got me was a Shrek-like cat on the back of the car, “Forgive and Forget” written all over it. People reading real books in public transport. Joke exchange with strangers, which can spring from an eyebrow move. It turns out, I was attached to Russia in more ways than I cared to notice. My very best friends, with one exception, are all Russian. Most of them living abroad, yes, but still Russian. Russian sense of humour, as I found out, even ten years without a single update on Russian funny, newly invented words and expressions, still matches mine. And there is something very difficult to catch with words, some slight sadness without any apparent reason, so thin and romantic that you almost love it. A kind of sadness that makes your life beautiful: as if something unfortunate happened and made you look around and realise that what you are living is precious. Just without anything unfortunate actually happening.

Moving to Paris was one of the best things in my life. It was my longtime dream, my ambition and the endless source of inspiration – and energy – in everything that I did. Well, in many things that I did. The day I signed my lease for my first apartment here, at 32, rue des Renaudes, was one of the happiest of my life. It took me just a week to find that place. I sent my application file while being stuck for 10 hours in Frankfurt on my way to Kazakhstan (thank you, Lufthansa!). My INSEAD friend Lena bravely volunteered then to be my warrant. I think we were missing half of the required documents, but I still got the place. Talk about the stars aligning when you dream about something with your heart wide open.

I am absolutely happy living here. Every time I land in Charles de Gaulle, I have a happiness boost. I am home. (I have a confidence boost as well: I did it, I belong here now!) And yet, every time I come to Russia, between the rush of work, the laughter of friends, chatter with taxi drivers, between the office jokes and birthday cakes, I can’t help but thinking, what if… Just for a moment.

I call it homeland blues. Do you ever get it?

🙂

Chapter II: London

I almost never talk about London but it is a big chapter of my life. I lived there for, in total, about two years. I walked the kilometres of its streets, indulged in its senses, breathed it, enjoyed it, loved it. Then I left, and with an exception of a short stint for an interview with Shell during my INSEAD year, did not come back until now, seven years after. A month ago, Louveteau and I went to London to celebrate his birthday. And just for the weekend in London, quoi. It was a good opportunity for me to reconnect with my memories of the British capital and to reflect on the aftermath of this city’s magic on me.

London has shaped me in many ways. The education I got there might not be the most relevant for my career (well, actually, you never know with education: something learnt a decade ago can suddenly come handy. Actually, that’s what usually happens.) However, the experiences I got there, the risks I took and the decisions I made, good and bad, affected many of my life choices. Maybe that’s why it seems very important to me to resurrect my time in London.

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Writing this chapter took me some time. Impressions fade over years, memories are getting replaced sooner than we realize it. London, however, stays with me in many ways, more than I probably know of.

When addresses, places, shows and fireworks leave the memory, when things, once precious, are worn out and thrown away, something inside, something forged by the dialogue with the city, by its gifts and the sacrifices it demands, by its generosity, its history, its magic, – this intangible something stays.

So I took my time to go through my first notes about London from as far as seven years ago, to reconstruct my first impressions, feelings about London, to breathe in my past. To cherish it.

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Moving Homes

There are people who don’t really care about where they live. I mean, they might care about the actual city, location, flights of stairs, driving distance from the office (or from the airport). But the actual home? Comes second, at best. I am not one of them.

At least, at this stage of my life. After I was born, I spent first several years in a concrete mini skyscraper next to the Gulf of Finland (that’s an area in St Petersburg, though the geo tags might be confusing), in the home that I barely remember. Actually, my only memory of that place is my own bed, inhabited by a maximum number of some adorable (or I so thought back then) stuffed animals. Some of them very big. We then moved to the first place that we owned as a family, in the city’s historical center, on Repina street.

This one I remember very well (I spent around ten years there, after all). First we had a room there (well, a room of 33 square meters with 4+ meters ceilings, but anyway) and were sharing the other facilities, like bathroom and kitchen, with other 3 families. Facing an option like that now would send me to a state of deep shock, but back then it was absolutely awesome. Our Tatar neighbors had a boy in my class (and his sister a few classes elder), he was secretly (or not so secretly) in love with my best friend, and soon the entire class was playing hide-and-seek in our long and not-always-so-well-lite hallways. Then we had one more room, which became my own. Russia at that time just emerged from the Soviet Union, and no one was clear how to go about the real estate. The property that belonged to the state for almost a century became private overnight, but who was to own it? And how to acquire more? In Soviet time, owning anything was not an option (even good books very rare and property of a library, or an item of a proud family collection, like in our case. We might not had much, but we had our books). One could only get an apartment (or a room) after some work history to support one’s claim: 20+ years working above the Polar Circle (my grandma), a few Doctorate degrees (my dad). And then suddenly everything became for sale, except that no one had any real cash to pay (and there was no credit system to sustain the alternative financing options yet). I lived across the street from my best childhood friend. It was the narrowest street in town. We were besties since six. And yet, we were economic worlds apart. My friends’ family were as bourgeois as one could possibly be during the post Soviet times. We were, well, my parents and their friends were a bunch of people believing in science. My bestie did not care. We were always together, on this or that side of the economic dividing line.

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Place des Ternes on the day I was leaving it, the heart of my old neighbourhood in Paris

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Roland Garros 2016: friends, traditions and some Eastern European shopping tips

For two weeks a year, everyone in Paris remembers that they are very into tennis. Crowds flock to Stade Roland Garros to celebrate spring (theoretically, since the tradition of Roland Garros goes back to 1891, long before the climate became weird), get a grasp of latest trends and social gossip, drink champagne and catch up with friends. And to watch tennis, of course. Elena and I are no exception to the rule. Roland Garros became our personal tradition since – we were trying to remember it last weekend – 2011, when we were first invited for one of the Paris sport – and social – key events. “Do you two even like tennis?” – Stephan, then Elena’s boyfriend, was challenging our intentions.

We did like tennis: at 2011, Elena, a student of Panthéon-Assas and myself, a proud resident of a 22 m2 apartment under the roofs of the 9th arrondissement of Paris and an exchange at Dauphine, liked every social event we could get to in Paris. Let alone Roland Garros.

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Rolland Garros 2016: the trophies

A lot of things have changed since then. Elena has defended the best in class thesis on political science and was then lured by the challenges of commercial sector. I have graduated from my Masters as well, went to Istanbul, then back to Finland and then returned to France for INSEAD. Elena and Stephan got married, moved to a new place and now have a daughter. I graduated from INSEAD, left for Munich and now have finally come back home, to Paris. When I think about 2011, everything has changed and only Fedya, Lena’s dog, remains a constant in our lives (and now a favorite toy of Jeanne). However, we still reunite every year to watch Nadal, make a ton of epic pictures and, naturally, to exchange news and reflections on life (and Paris public) over champagne.

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Living abroad: 10 things to start from

Start with a dream. And dream big. If you have ever considered moving, usually you know where you want to be. Make this dream personal. Add the most important element to the picture of the place you want to be: yourself. See yourself waking up to your city’s sun (or rain), walking its streets to work, taking its metro, doing groceries and catching the evening lights in a glass of wine on its terraces (or roof tops) after work.

Go where you want to go, not where you think you should. You already do a lot of things you have to do. Don’t add a choice of the place to live to this list. Sure, it doesn’t make sense to pack for Paris if you don’t speak any French (unless you have a plan on how to pay your bills while learning it). However, don’t chose a place with better salaries (cost of living and taxes are likely to be higher as well), better rankings in the list of best cities to live, life expectancy or any other more promising stats over the place you love. No rational considerations can replace the streets of the city that make your heart beat faster. So make sure you chose your goal with your heart. It is also a lot easier to overcome the difficulties of the first time (and some other times) when you genuinely love the place you are working to make your home.

Think papers. The biggest challenge of moving abroad is not documents, it’s the fear of change. Documents come second. Unless you are born with a lucky passport, decide what would be a condition of you being in the place of your dream. It does not have to be a complete solution, but you need a legitimate way to stay where you want to stay for at least six months. You will get more information (sometimes in unexpected places) when you get there.

Prepare to lose. In something, be it a job level, friends, income, commute time or the bagel you used to buy every morning on your way to work. Dreams are measured by what you are willing to let go of to make them happen, and planning for moving abroad is a good way to test your commitment to your goal. How much do you really want to live in this city? Once you have mapped the upcoming losses, embrace them. They will be oh so worth it.

Look for the graduates. If you contemplate the ways to do something, it is likely that someone else already did. They might tell you how. Find people already living your dream and invest in a relationship with them. Forums, as tempting shortcut as they sound, do not yield the best results. For some reason, collective wisdom in case of immigration becomes a collective panic, with often exaggerated tales of perils of every step, bureaucratic or not. People with real success stories are likely enjoying it now and don’t sit in forums to share the recipes of their success with others. So get to know them. And when you do, don’t jump on them with your questions. They probably get a lot of that. Get interested in their life. Find common themes. Buy them coffee. Be genuine. This way you will not only bypass the panic of the forums but can also find some real friends in the place you are going to.

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Chapter I: Finland

The question I get almost every time I list the countries I lived in is whether it was for work or study. A close favorite one is whether my parents are diplomats (for a check, my parents are scientists). I then say that, in fact, behind most countries on my list there is a school or a job but it is misleading. In reality, my thirst for places has always been much stronger than my thirst for knowledge. I fall in love with cities, cultures, experiences much more than I do with educational institutions. Every time I plunge into a different culture, it expands my reach, I learn something about myself, some new little way of being, and I am constantly amazed by it (even now, after almost a decade of plunging). I believe that travelling – with your heart, absorbing culture and values as well as monuments and food – is the best thing that can happen to anyone. After love.

My story with geography starts in Finland. From the places I lived in, about some I think as cities, and of some as countries. My experience in Finland has always been about the country, even though all the five years I stayed in Helsinki (with some occasional enchanting trips to Porvoo and some job trips, if a 20 something min commute can be called a trip, to Espoo). Staying for five years is an exaggeration, but facts first.

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