Expats come in various forms. We touched previously on the drunken twat spouting superficial analysis at a bunch of overly tolerant Russians who are all hoping to get out of their Motherland and have made the unfortunate error of talking to a bumptious cretin to discover what that might mean.
Then there are the English teachers, young folks who are basically doing a second gap year but calling it a job, or middle aged divorces who seem to be here because they have no idea what the fuck else to do. There are the businessmen. CEOs and CFO’s in big companies traveling from a western style business centre to western style flat in a western car with everything except arse wiping dealt with by western style assistants. There are also those lower down the corporate chain who are here too, specialists or middle managers, jabbering about supply side economics and how easy Russian girls are. What all of these expats have in common is that they are not here for long and so they have little invested emotionally, intellectually or financially in Russia. They seldom get anywhere near fluency in the language or anywhere near empathy in their understanding, because they don’t need to: Russia is not a country so much as a posting, or an opportunity or an adventure.
The long termers are those who have, in one way or another, fallen in love. Maybe it was with the country, or the language or a person. In this latter group there are some teachers, a few businessmen, quite a few journalists and some arty types. And there are the diplomats, about whom I know very little.
Here’s what I do know.
They are middle or upper class on the whole: nobody from my school made it into the civil service, never mind the diplomatic service. There are the public school people, and none the worse for that: a good education is a fine thing. I wish I had had a better one. Secondly, they tend to freeze and remain in the cultural moment they were in when they left England. I feel this myself, when friends ask me how it is in England I feel, more so with each year that passes, that I only know how it “was” in England. How it was when Blair and just been elected Oasis were promising. But what if you had come here 20, or 30, or even 40 years earlier, what then?
I first found out in Austria, going to a consulate to get a new passport with a British friend of Indian descent. We were taken into a room where an old gentleman was sitting among pictures of the Royal Family and watercolours of dear bloody old England. And it took him a minute to grasp that my friend was English: he asked her if she was sure, and if it wasn’t so obvious that he had no idea what world he was living in she might have taken offence at that. But it was clearly not racism as much as the fact that England was pretty much a distant dream for him, where white Oxbridge buys rowed along rivers in the watercolours behind him.
When we had established that we were all British he sorted the passport stuff and then invited us to the Norman Wisdom film evenings they had once or twice a month, saying they would be glad of some new blood. We made our excuses and left.
Then, and I may have mentioned this before, I went to the British Embassy here in Moscow for one of the Queen is not dead yet functions they hold every few years, a garden party in the old Embassy over the river from the Kremlin.
Going in my wife, being far too charming and open for her own good, failed like everyone else to head straight through the building to where the free food and beer was and somehow got herself in a line of people meeting members of the diplomatic staff and other VIPs. I couldn’t leave her there and so went over and found myself being introduced, along with a bunch of random Russians to the plum in the mouth brigade who worked in various capacities representing the interests of Great Britain, or at least the parts of great Britain where wearing a string of pearls was still the done thing.
Halfway down the line I found myself shaking hands with a very refined old lady, who clearly took me for a Russian or maybe for a British businessman, rather than for the half drunk idiot I was. But Katya, my wife, had decided to engage her latest hand shaker in conversation and I was trapped in front of the dowager duchess having run out of polite meaningful nothings. So she, having grasped that I was not Russian by this point, asked how long I had been in Moscow. This was 2002, so I answered “5 years already” and she rejoindered: “Really, I haven’t seen you in church.” That’s a line that would last have been possible in England itself in about 1952, and then only in a village in Shropshire. Perhaps she imagined that every British person arriving in Moscow, got off the airplane and then set about looking for the nearest Anglican church, or maybe she had simply been driven insane by the city, I would like to think that she amused herself in these formal boredom fests by resorting to a viciously ironic parody of Englishness, but it seemed unlikely.
Anyway, I made my excuses and left. Now I wonder: is this my future?