This is an adult’s reflection on hazy childhood memories.
I was raised in Moscow, in the mid 90s. The horrors of communism, horrible though they were, are not things young girls in their girlishness notice- all ribbons, bows and bloomers, skirts and witty ditties, baked apples and brown sugar, life is a dream in very tender years, even in the foreign place that is Mother Russia.
At that age, its hard to perceive the privileged place you hold in society growing up the way you do. I loved ballet and rhythmic gymnastics, yearly vacations to Spain in the winter time, sneaking chocolate truffles at dinner parties though my mom told me I was allergic- the sugar was bad for me. I loved climbing the apple trees on a boulevard I only vaguely remember, and picking strawberries at my grandmother’s dacha– learning to crochet on her floor when she would watch me for a few days- going to see all the animals at the circus. I loved red caviar on my pancakes (blinchiki- like crepes, but more buttery), seeing my school yard playmates at English school on Saturdays, New Year’s celebrations at midnight on January 1st. We would get dressed up, and sing karaoke, and hug Father Frost and tell him about our dreams for the year. Life was a dream.
English school on Saturdays should have been an omen. On New Year’s day in the early 2000’s, my parents broke the news- we would be leaving behind the comforts of our two bedroom apartment in the heart of Moscow, and starting a new life in Canada, on the outskirts of Toronto.
My first reaction was one of uncertain shock. As a young child- think early elementary school age- its hard to conceptualize the magnitude of leaving home to start a life in a new and completely different country. I was at a formative age, still new to the flow of the school system in Russia. The thought of beginning again before I really started- in a country with not only a different system but without my known cohort- was overwhelming. Leaving behind our well developed circle- of friends, family, support networks- felt like an unparalleled tragedy. It was impossible to imagine how else life would change.
I was a curious, upbeat little foal, and accepted the news fairly quickly. It was sad to break it to my playmates- being a social little girl, I had the seeds of a vibrant network at school and the various activities I was a part of, and was upset to be missing the next chapters in our collective story.
Winter passed quickly. Our little family arrived at Pearson airport one stormy April in the early 2000’s. Spring was a time for new beginnings.
A skip across the pond is a challenge in the best circumstances. Gone is the familiar corner store, your favorite window sill in your babushka’s comfortably cramped apartment; gone are the familiar geometric letters, your cherished school yard play mates, the ballet class you take on Wednesdays and your best friend with the jungle gym that lives across the hall. Finding a close match for the familiar brand of kolbasa is an arduous process of trial and error; there is a bigger selection of cheese in the new supermarket but it all tastes strange; the cartoons don’t look quite right; you miss the starchy sweet taste of the shredded beets you once faked an allergy to get out of eating. In adult terms, the customs are unfamiliar- even if you grasp the language you don’t understand the humor, social norms are foreign. You can’t hear the music everyone else is dancing to, and are stuck stumbling through steps to a dance you already know.
After arriving in Toronto, we stayed with fellow ex-pats we had met on vacation. They had a large house, and kids our age, and we spent countless hours playing games their family had left behind in Moscow. We learned new games they played in Canada. They agreed that the new games were not as fun. I learned to love a good book, in Russian at the time, because it took me back home.
Though the language came easy, the rest of it- friendships, adjusting to the new school and rhythms of life- was hard to handle. Immigrating to a new country is hard on adults, and my parents- hard working, amazing human beings they were- were suddenly far busier adjusting to a new world. It wasn’t any easier on me; not many children can relate to the major adjustment of a trans-Atlantic move, and the experience was an isolating one on account of the sudden and conspicuous absence of the adult half of our nuclear family.
Though I did slowly integrate into my new life, I will always be a transplant. I matured in parallel to peers, but always as an observer as opposed to a no-holds-barred participant in our joint world. We had little common ground- they didn’t know the cartoons I loved dearly, I didn’t understand the appeal of Pokemon. I would relate by asking questions and drawing conclusions- I was a field scientist in the school yard. I grew up cautious and reserved, very private to the point of developing an aura of mystery- analytical and detached, un-engaged in the little dramas of our world except for as interesting case studies. Always a little too serious, a little too worldly, and by turns well behaved and wild- someone who knew the rules, but only respected them when I thought it worthwhile.
A tree needs the wind to grow strong. Without resistance and adversity, growing things grow wildly but without integrity in their structures; in many ways, I feel like the sudden disassembly of my idyllic childhood world forced me to grow up faster. It gave way to quieter habits- taught me to become observant and conscientious; to listen before speaking; to mind where I step; to adapt. I became a person contained in herself- someone who makes a home wherever I go, someone at ease anywhere. Ultimately, that early uprooting let me grow into an anti-fragile woman- someone who feeds on change, and thrives on adversity. As painful as it was to leave my childhood paradise behind, I would not trade my skip across the ocean for the world.
Our family eventually made our way back to a similar lifestyle we had grown accustomed to in Moscow, and by this time I was no stranger to hard work- pushing for the sky both academically and athletically, thanks to that early life experience I understood that the only way to live well is to put your soul into whatever you choose to do. Though still no stranger to creating intrigue, I’ve grown far less reserved- and perhaps developed an understanding of the human condition hard to get without some introspection.
I had also developed a great appreciation for the art of story telling. In those early years, stories brought me comfort and company, soothed my worries and staved off my boredom, let me dream of bigger adventures than I thought I’d be able to handle. Stories gave me something to relate to; an idea that the alienation I struggled with was at one point something someone else had felt, and dealt with, and come out better for. They are a medium for sharing an experience, for touching someone else across time and space, for putting yourself out in the world in the hopes that someone who needs your story hears it. Stories are a precious, powerful thing, to be treasured, protected, and told to whoever needs their lessons at any cost. I hope to tell more stories, especially more stories that people need to hear.
Compared to the stories of many immigrants that come to Canada yearly, our family had it very easy. We were well off and educated, and all of us spoke a great deal of English well before the jump. The endeavor was well researched, as my parents had the resources to visit the area we would be moving to, pick out a neighborhood and a school well before our arrival, and the network to ask questions about the process of naturalization. Though by heritage I am half Latina, my entire family passes easily as white, and while some hostility was experienced as Russia is still seen as a backwards totalitarian unknown, it was not as bad as it would be for many people of colour in a similar situation.
It was still hard. Both my parents had to be re-educated to conform to the requirements imposed by the regulatory bodies of their respective professions, but the resources were readily available for them to do so. Life was very busy, and the cohesion of our family unit suffered. Being so far away from your support network- family, old friends- can make things that were once easy to come by inaccessible. Child care, for instance, once provided by loving grandparents, friendly neighbors and friends with young children of their own, is an expensive necessity that can’t be readily outsourced to the friendly people on the block you met only recently. Be kind to the recent transplants in your world; putting down new roots is harder than most people know.
It took me time to find a home that feels like home. A new favourite type of sausage. Cheese that tastes fine. The elusive rhythm of the music everyone else is dancing to. But the secret to feeling at home is to package home with you, in that secret place inside your soul. Unpack your story with anyone who has open ears and a kind, open heart- preferably over the smells and flavours of your past, to the sounds of your music.
Once you get settled, the new country often means a better life; there is probably a reason you left the old one. In the meanwhile, pull together with your loved ones, because isolation is painful and tends to make things worse than they are. If all else fails, find a story to keep you comfort; maybe your favourite book from childhood, maybe an inventive fantasy (you can ask me for recommendations- heaven knows I have them), maybe memoirs, maybe even this one.
Thanks for listening,