How to fall in love with a city: Embrace the adventure, Marco Polo ki aulad!

Published: August 31, 2014
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Make a list of what you want out of a new place. Maybe you want to know everything about just one aspect of the culture- or study its literature, or perhaps you want to swallow as much of as many aspects of it as you can. PHOTO: REUTERS

As I sit on the plane headed for Pakistan before moving to Paris, I silently grieve for what was home for two years and go over some of my most memorable moments as well as my mental notes about the place. Suddenly, on the jazz music channel (thank you, noise-cancelling headphones) I hear Carmen McRae crooning ‘The loveliness of Paris…’ and then Ella Fitzgerald ‘April in Paris’. All I needed was this nudge from the universe to begin to look forward to a new adventure.

Sometimes we do things right instinctively. Sometimes we need a teacher. Sometimes we need to make a ‘notes-to-self’ kind of list, and to learn from mistakes. Then there is that rare occurrence where one’s rhythm is a perfect match to that of a city’s: the ‘energichni, interiyesni, gorod Mockba’ (energetic/ alive, interesting city of Moscow) and its ‘krasivi arxitekturi’ (beautiful architecture), which got under my skin in a bewilderingly short period of time. Initially hesitant about moving to such an alien place, I found myself melting into Moscow’s particular charms: Russia’s soul got under my skin, the way it does if you open your heart to it.

I also realise that I had been working from a mental list of Do’s and Don’ts when I moved to Moscow initially, but in preparation for the move to Paris, I decide to write down some of what I have learnt in my travels.

How should I organise my thoughts?

There are so many ways, but I decide to do the most immediate thing: base this list on recent statements and observations made by my supportive friends about this life of constant change. Some which actually surprised me:

“I remember that you knew what you wanted when you came here two years ago, and it seems to me you have achieved it”, said my Swedish friend Veronika, reminding me of our initial conversation.

I had never consciously thought of this settling in process in those terms.

Photo: Zarminae Ansari

1- Have clarity of purpose

When I arrived, I had made a mental list about what I wanted out of the next two years. I knew that I wanted to do as much as possible in this relatively short time: to get to know the city and learn as much about the culture as I could.

Make a list of what you want out of a new place. Maybe you want to know everything about just one aspect of the culture – or study its literature, or perhaps you want to swallow as many aspects of it as you can. Whatever it is- make a list. Stick to it. Things will be challenging, settling in will be time-consuming at first. It will be easy to get into a routine and lose sight of your goals. Don’t.

2- Learn the language

Photo: Zarminae Ansari

‘I can vouch for you wanting storms’, said Amber, one of my oldest friends when I shared this quote by the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova.

Those who knew me best understood why the quote spoke to me.

I thrive, like most people I suppose, on new experiences. Not just the novelty, but also the educational aspect of experiencing the new, unfamiliar and unique. Another thing I was very clear about, perhaps the greatest challenge I set myself, or the ‘storm’ if you will, was to learn this incredibly difficult language. I admired the proficiency with which my diplomat friends spoke it.

These days I am extremely proud of our embassy in Moscow: it is entirely Russian speaking. All the way to the top: to our current ambassador, Zaheer A Janjua. The importance of this simply cannot be emphasised enough in non-English-speaking countries. And while I’m not even close to proficiency, I certainly get by and my experience was made all the richer for it.

Use every opportunity to use the new language; people will be more helpful and generally kinder when they see that you are making an effort to communicate with them in their own language. Very helpful if bargaining for discounts at the local market – you might even make unexpected friends. I did my language homework at the café around the corner – it was great to practice whatever I learnt. The free coffee was a bonus.

3- Be a resident tourist

As I said my goodbyes, many friends commented that I would get to know Paris as well or perhaps more than Moscow which I had really managed to explore surprisingly well in the relatively short time of two years.

However, it wasn’t always so. One of the mistakes I made early on in my expat life was to be complacent.  As a tourist, I often wondered why friends who lived in the town I was visiting had not seen some of the things that I, as a mere visitor had.

Now I know.

Living down the road from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I make the mistake of feeling like I had all the time in the world to visit it. I missed many places because they were too ‘touristy’.

Photo: Zarminae Ansari

In Moscow, armed with a few good guidebooks, and Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s poignant and witty recollections of the city, ‘Moscow ki Safaid Raatein’, I attacked the town the way a tourist with limited time does, marking off all the major sites within the first few weeks. And consequently trying to see at least one new place: a museum, park or neighbourhood every single week without fail. This allowed me to get oriented with the city in record time, and also identify my favourite sites and places so that I could return to my favourite ones, and I did.

You really do NOT have all the time in the world. Try not to wait to see major sites ‘when friends and family visit’, because they may not. And it might be time to move again.

Photo: Zarminae Ansari

4- Join the club

Jump in immediately! Most cities, even the smallest ones have expat clubs that take many forms. Some are spouse associations and support groups for ‘trailing spouses’ (a term I’m not terribly fond of), the International Women’s Club (IWC), and nationality (for example, Commonwealth Club) and language-based clubs (for example, Damas Latinas).

Other resources and clubs include the school, kids’ clubs and sports-based clubs, which are great to meet like-minded people and/or other parents. For single people the best clubs are activity-based, since these social so-called ‘expat clubs’ sometimes tend to attract a different kind of crowd, which is great if you’re into that kind of thing: local girls, expat guys.

A few of the things I learnt about and experienced through some clubs: Russian literature, Moscow architecture, history of the Gulag and Stalin’s Terror, creating decoupage crafts, Soviet Realist Art, traditional cuisines, Russian Icons, days out of Moscow.

I met many like-minded people in the clubs I joined – especially the extraordinary, well-organised, International Women’s Club of Moscow with its scores of activities and interest groups, which is one of the largest chapters of the IWC. I can truly say that joining this one club made my Moscow experience all the more rewarding.

Kelly, with whom I led my first architecture walk-tour only three weeks after arriving in Russia, and Marina, who took over from her, encouraged me to start a similar group in Paris. I befriended some of the most intelligent women on these walks, Dorothea and Jana, who are convinced that club or not, I will get to know Paris, my new city – Dorothea’s favourite. While I am grateful for their vote of confidence, I am completely convinced of the value and efficacy of clubs – at least initially, so taking my own advice, I have already reached out to all the clubs I am eligible for!

Photo: Zarminae Ansari

5- Share your discoveries

If you use social media, share!

If you don’t, tell your friends!

If you see, draw!

If you hear, describe!

When you tell others about a fantastic new private museum you have discovered, write about something you had only a superficial understanding of in the past, photograph all that is new, unusual or fascinating, or even sketch a scene or a building; you remember more of it, understand it more deeply.

It is easier if you are a writer, journalist or artist. But even if you aren’t, consider writing about your experiences, or sketching, not just photographing it. Yes: even if you have never sketched or written before!

Photo: Zarminae Ansari

In ‘The Art of Travel’, (required reading for travellers!) Alain De Botton writes about John Ruskin who published books and gave lectures in the late 19th century to laymen, workers and craftsmen on art.

“What was the point of drawing? Ruskin saw no paradox in stressing that it had nothing to do with drawing well, or with becoming an artist… because drawing could teach us to see: to notice rather than to look. In the process of recreating with our own hand what lies before our eyes, we seem naturally to move from a position of observing beauty in a loose way to one where we acquire a deep understanding of its constituent parts and, hence, more secure memories of it.”

“Another benefit we may derive from drawing is a conscious understanding of the reasons behind our attraction to certain landscapes and buildings. We find explanations for our tastes; we develop an ‘aesthetic’, a capacity to assert judgements about beauty and ugliness.”

Botton describes the problem Ruskin saw with photography after his initial enthusiasm for it and writes that instead of being a supplement to the process of observation, photography seemed to replace it completely with people comfortable in the knowledge that a moment of beauty had been forever captured.

However, sometimes, we really do not have the luxury of time needed for drawing a scene, or a building. All we have is a camera or a smart phone. Even this can be put to better use if we use it as a travel diary or mini-blog. Photos and selfies in front of monuments become rather monotonous for our friends and family after a while- with the exception of grandmothers. (In case you haven’t noticed: grandmothers want to see their grandkids in front of every major monument, or practicing riding a scooter in Victory Park, or even scowling at the sun.

Everyone else I know is more interested in a little nugget of information about the place or event. So many friends have written to me that they had never put Moscow on the top of a list, or even on any list of places to visit, but have decided to do so after all that I have shared. While that is very gratifying, my intention while sharing was really journaling my own experience under time constraints. Having said that, I think it’s great fun to change peoples’ perceptions and I am looking forward to leading a group-tour of friends back to my favourite Moscow haunts soon (and before I forget my Russian).

Photo: Zarminae Ansari

6- Understand the country through its arts and culture

Akhmatova, Bulgakov, Chekhov. Dostoevsky to Dovlatov. Erofeev. Okhudzhava to Oleshin, and Pushkin to Pasternak.

Tolstoy, Turgenev , Trifanov, Tsvetaeva and Tatiana Tolstaya.

These are some of the names I became acquainted with thanks to an amazing series of lectures about Russian literature where I discovered some of my favourite books. They helped me start to understand, in a relatively short time, the fact that it is impossible to understand or explain Russia. You can only begin to feel its soul.

My friend, John, who came to Russia and never left, understood this strange phenomenon. There are some places that you can fall in love with at first sight. Others are so intimidating, challenging and forbidding that you might want to retreat into your expat cocoon and its coffee parties.

Don’t: it might take you completely by surprise how a place slowly gets under your skin, if you let it by learning more about it. As Churchill said about Russia:

“It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.

My son and I were the first expat guests at Bogdarnya, an agro-tourism retreat outside Moscow. At first, going alone, to what seemed to be the middle of nowhere with a small child, seemed a bit foolhardy, we were lucky though, as the Kopiski family who run it made every effort to allay any fears and facilitate the visit. We never looked back. It is my son’s favourite memory of Russia and probably one of my top five. It is also the place where I truly felt more of that ‘Russian soul’ than in the rush of Moscow city life and its designer boutiques. I saw my first troika race and carriage driver’s competition, traditional village dances, wooden dachas, the warmth and spirituality of a completely wooden ‘Khram’ or church.

‘Song of the Arbat’ was the bard-poet Bulat Okhutzhava’s famous poem or song which helped with my Russian homework, and at the same time made me look at the historic street I lived by, in a new way:

“You flow like a river with your strange name, And your asphalt transparent like water in a river”, sang the bard whose much-photographed monument graces the street he lived on and wrote about.

Photo: Zarminae Ansari

7- Drop the deadwood

I am still learning – but getting better at dropping the deadwood. I read something somewhere about ‘drains and radiators’. As the name suggest, drains were acquaintances whose negative energy leave you drained, whereas radiators emanate warmth and leave you wanting more.

I often invited my son’s friends for play dates and their mothers for coffee when they came to pick their kids up. In two cases, I realised early on that they were drains and did not extend this acquaintance beyond that particular excruciating cup of coffee where they complained about Moscow, said that they had nothing to do and were bored because their husbands were travelling.

I was sympathetic, of course, after all we all faced the same challenges – but their conversation did not extend beyond the difficulties of living there. When I made suggestions – not unlike this list – they were not interested in improving the quality of their lives by joining any clubs or activity groups which had actually eased my own transition and settling in process.

Huge red flag: if people hate everything about where they live and find absolutely no redeeming qualities about it, they are drains.

Only boring people get bored.

I should probably be more charitable and mention here – that sometimes they are going through a crisis in their personal lives (and who isn’t?), which makes them induratize (more on that in point eight). Be their therapist (if you have the energy). But know that they are drains.

Photo: Zarminae Ansari

And then there are radiators: people like my rocket-scientist (literally) friend Tricia who works for NASA (and how cool is that?), whose energy and ‘FOMO’ (Fear of Missing Out) rivalled, nay- superseded my own. She was ready to try out new things (like a Russian rock concert, a jive/swing dance class, a national dance show that could have been cheesy but wasn’t, a new restaurant, or a new city) and organise it all to take everyone along with her on her journey.

Fiona, a journalist, was the walking queen: sending out open invitations to friends to join her in long walks around Moscow neighbourhoods, or join her for concerts. The ultimate radiator has got to be one of the most humble, loving and warm people I have ever met: astronaut Suni Williams. In fact, all the astronauts I met were just the kindest bunch of people, and then it occurred to me: if you are in space for up to six months at a time – you would drive the rest of your colleagues to open the hatches of the International Space Station (ISS) and jump out if you weren’t a radiator – so being an inspiration comes with the job description.

One disclaimer here – I have not loved every city I have lived in. In the early days, as I was making this list (mentally) I was still learning, so even that experience wasn’t without value as it provided me with two things, which redeem even Houston. One was a what-not-to-do list, and the other was a radiator, Rachel, whose grace and warmth I continue to learn from.

8- Do not induratize

Tulin, who has experienced the expat life growing up, understood something that friends, who have never moved countries, never do:

“Moving never gets easier, somehow… I’m sure you made the most of your time in Moscow, and it’s harder because you allowed yourself to fall in love with it. So many people never fall in love with the cities they live in, and it’s a shame.”

Aishu, a friend from architecture school who observed that I gave myself completely to each place I lived in, said:

“You have the heart and soul to let yourself be vulnerable enough to fall in love with all the places you live in. You leave a part of yourself there, yet absorb and gain something from there. Hats off to you for learning their language, it made this journey all the more soulful and important.”

I could pretend to be modest and write ‘humbled that she thought that’ – but I won’t: I will be unabashedly proud of that achievement.

Be vulnerable. Open your heart and forget the inevitable heartbreak. It is also possible to make lasting friendships even till the last few days before leaving a place. Some of my best memories are from only a few months before my departure from Moscow, when I met some of the most unforgettable people in my life, people I feel blessed to have in my life. If I had met them with the cynicism that some expats develop, I might never have experienced a DDT rock concert (the Russian U2/ Roger Waters) in Gorky park with a bunch of NASA astronauts, seen a classic Russian movie which is an integral part of the cultural life of people and is shown every year on New Year’s Eve, or had the most fun behind the scenes at a symphony orchestra concert at the famous Moscow Conservatory.

I was encouraged and inspired by my friend Ilse – a seasoned traveller and expat who has spent many more years than I have moving countries, and lamented that, “now I will have to start all over again, getting to know people and making friends”, and yet, knowing that she would have to, did not stop her from extending the hand of friendship. It was actually her advice that I took to heart about dropping the deadwood, really looking for quality than quantity to forge lasting friendships, even in this relatively short period of time.

Photo: Zarminae Ansari

In conclusion: Embrace the adventure, Marco Polo ki aulad!

Someone once tried to be dismissive of my adventurous and adaptive spirit, and called me ‘Marco Polo ki aulad’ (Marco Polo’s progeny), as if it were a bad thing. I love that title and own it proudly- it’s all about the fernweh!

As Ibn Batuta, the famous 14th century Islamic scholar, jurist, geographer, traveller-explorer has been quoted as saying:

“Travelling- it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller”.

Zarminae Ansari

Zarminae Ansari

A graduate from MIT. She has lived in Karachi, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Vancouver Island, London, Houston, Abu Dhabi, Islamabad, Moscow and is now preparing to move to Paris.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.