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"I chose the path of least resistance - living in two countries". Svetlana Kolchik, editor of Marie Claire Russia, on denying her own emigration


Svetlana Kolchik, journalist, writer, author of two books and former deputy editor-in-chief of Marie Claire Russia, has been living in Hamburg for almost seven years and shares her personal experience of loneliness in emigration

I left for Germany with a return ticket to Moscow. I could not think of any other way for me to move at that time. A move, but also a downturn, an experiment, a temporary escape - anything but emigration. The word still gives me an existential horror. It reeks of limbo, of "non-returnees" - something that can never be changed. I'm still so scared of burning bridges.

Changing countries in terms of stress levels likes to be compared at least to divorce. Whatever the reasons for moving, it is always a test of psychological strength.

Everyone chooses their own adaptation strategy. Some try to cling to their old life, as I did. Some, on the contrary, dive headlong into the new reality, trying to build everything, including social connections, from scratch.

I took the path of least resistance - living in two countries. At the time, seven years ago, the world situation allowed it. My husband, household, school and kindergarten for the children were in Germany, while my professional and social life remained in Moscow.

For the first few years, I managed to maintain this balance, or rather the illusion of it. I stayed as much as I could in my comfort zone. I did not learn German - in Hamburg, where we had moved to, almost everyone speaks very decent English. I did not look for work, going freelance and continuing to work for Russia. I did not look for new acquaintances either, explaining this by my "Moscow snobbery". Monthly trips to Moscow made up for the lack of social contacts for a while.

I had even less in common with Russian-speaking immigrants, mainly those who came to Germany at the end of the Soviet Union, than with Germans.

We seemed to speak the same language, but it was as if we were speaking in a vacuum: there was minimal cultural overlap, there was value dissonance.

The Germans were also in no hurry to take steps towards rapprochement, preferring their own, over the years, established circle of communication. My husband and I (a Russified German) were rather put off by the cold, conservative attitude of the Hamburgers, who were used to planning meetings two months in advance. I do not rule out that invitations to feasts a la russe made them feel obliged. Having dined with us a few times, potential friends often merged without a trace.

It is believed that adaptation in emigration consists of several phases. The first is euphoria, endorphins from new impressions, adrenaline from the fact that you have managed to "escape". The second is culture shock, often accompanied by a personality crisis and sometimes depression. Then comes adaptation and integration.

Everyone goes through these stages in different ways and at different speeds: some in six months, some in ten years. Some manage to integrate successfully into a new socio-cultural context, while others remain strangers forever. I, for example, am still tossing and turning. Sometimes I feel comfortable in Hamburg, other times I feel the isolation painfully close to my skin.

Loneliness can be especially acute during the culture shock phase.

It didn't happen to me until four years into my life in Germany. A pandemic broke out, the borders were closed, life in two countries became problematic. The tight lockdown and the enforcement of the rules by my new compatriots to enforce it added to the sense of "solitary confinement". I was trapped - in every sense of the word. And I had to urgently look for a way out.

I think another stage of adaptation in emigration should be added to the necessary ones - acceptance.

Only through gradual acceptance of the new circumstances in the new place of residence is there a chance to gradually climb out of the shell (or armor) of your psychological defenses.

Dose nostalgia. Start taking small steps "out into the world". For example, join an expat community - people there tend to be much more open. Try to step out of your comfort zone. Or start a new hobby. Hobby communities are a proven way to find new friends. Enrol in a good language school or learn something from scratch - anyone, even at retirement age, can get into a student family nowadays.

Sometimes, however, there is simply no resource for all of the above. Then you just have to give yourself time. And if possible, reduce expectations - including those regarding social contacts.

I'm not saying that we should stop looking for the depth that we are used to in friendships. But it's worth waiting, allowing ourselves to settle in and understand the local cultural codes. There's usually nothing personal in the reluctance of others to get close to you - at least not as quickly as you'd like. It's unlikely that you'll find friends who understand you, and if you do, it's a stroke of luck. But new acquaintances, who may someday become good pals, will sooner or later emerge.

And, paradoxically, you can also try to learn to get a buzz out of being alone. After all, emigration is probably the most effective way of getting to know yourself.

The book "The New Family" by Svetlana Kolchik will be published by the "Alpina Publisher" in the spring of 2023.

Author: Svetlana Kolchik
Cover photo from the author's archive

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