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.


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

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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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