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?