Anywhere can become home

OCTOBER 8 — It’s Friday, around 6pm, and the iconic Red Square in central Moscow is packed with a combination of wide-eyed tourists and relaxed locals savouring the end of another working week.

I walk down towards the famous St Basil’s Cathedral, marvelling at its wonderfully colourful fire-like towers which appear to be alive with a sense of eager desperation, grasping towards the sky.

To my right, some lights are on in the top floor of the Kremlin, prompting silly fantasies of Vladimir Putin sitting at a desk surrounded by his closest advisers, plotting intriguing plots and laughing evil laughs as they toast their fiendishly clever plans with copious rounds of vodka.

Continuing on past St Basil’s, pausing to turn again and admire the surreal architecture for one last time, I reach the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge and cross the deep and mysterious waters of the Moskva River, which has so many tales to tell and so many secrets to keep.

After a block of unremarkable buildings, surrounded on all sides by heavy traffic and busy construction work, I come to another bridge, this one much shorter, crossing a short tributary of the Moskva, and then immediately take a right turn along the Ovchinnikovskaya street running parallel to the riverbank.

People walk in front of an illuminated St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow late October 3, 2017. — Picture from AFP
People walk in front of an illuminated St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow late October 3, 2017. — Picture from AFP

Soon the waterway becomes illuminated by the bright lights and reassuring flow of the attractive decorative fountains close to Luzhkov Bridge, which is bordered by plaques dedicated to the pursuit of love – an incongruous setting, it feels, for such spiritual matters, within sight of the eternally feared Kremlin.

A few yards later, I reach the junction with the busy Bolshaya Polyanka boulevard and, as instructed by my phone’s map app, turn left. And there, on the left as promised, is my destination: Sally O’Briens.

An Irish pub like all the Irish pubs in practically every city of the world, Sally O’Briens is the venue for my meeting with Mick, a friend of a friend who has promised to give me a warm welcome and an enjoyable night out during my flying visit to Moscow.

Inside, Mick and his friends have gathered for their usual Friday evening fun: chicken wings and French fries, washed down by a few pints of Guinness and a few games of darts.

The promised warm welcome is immediately forthcoming and I am quickly made to feel at home among this eclectic group of Americans, Britons, Australians and Swedes who have all been residents in this strange, exotic city for several years — plenty of time to develop their own rituals and traditions and thereby create a new home, far away from home.

I have met Mick before, so I already knew that he first arrived in Moscow more than 20 years ago, accepting a job with a bank on a short-term whim but then surprising himself by never returning home to New York, instead marrying a Russian girl and settling down to have two kids, who are now being brought up as bilingual global citizens.

And it turns out that everyone else in the group has a similar story. Not exactly the same – there are a couple of committed bachelors who make sure they fully enjoy the benefits and opportunities of being a single man in a large city full of beautiful women.

The group’s professional occupations are varied, too. One is a leading executive for a multinational consumer brand; another made his fortune as a financial advisor to a well-known oligarch; another is a restauranteur with a sideline in conserving tigers in Siberia.

But never mind those details: the similarity is that everyone is this engaging group carries a similar personal story of arriving in Russia in the early Nineties and then enjoying a decade of unlimited opportunity, unstinting hard work and unimaginable material rewards, leading seamlessly into a longer-than-expected stay in a place which was once strange, forbidding and exciting but is now just home — plain, ordinary, simple home.

They would never have imagined it. When these middle-aged men were growing up, Russia was the great enemy — the centrepiece of the evil Soviet Union during a Cold War which threatened to escalate into nuclear meltdown.

If, back then, you had told them that their long-term futures lay in Moscow, where they would enjoy a successful career, learn the local language and, in some cases, marry a Russian woman, they would have regarded such notions as not merely improbable but practically impossible.

But with that right combination of opportunity, ambition, ability, perseverance and a little bit of luck, they came and they saw and they conquered, and now Moscow is more of a home than their native lands.

The example of this group of happy expats shows that we can call anywhere home. This runs contrary to many deep cultural beliefs, which insist upon the unsurpassable importance of notions such as “roots” and “homeland.”

Some languages even have specific words to describe a place of birth and upbringing — in German, for example, it is “Heimat” — while others content themselves with emotionally resonating phrases such as motherland or fatherland, implying a deep and unbreakable bond between people and places.

But in reality these concepts are fantasy; fictions that we invent to strengthen our own sense of identity but which carry no essential meaning and can easily be severed.

If you have the right attitude and the right opportunity, anywhere can become home. Even Moscow.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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