For the first couple of years in Holland, I lived like a tourist. I signed an employment contract for four years with the first year as a trial period. As soon as I got my first salary, I realized that I was making less money after taxes than I was making in Moscow. I was living in a tiny studio without a washing machine and paying half of my salary for it. However, I was living in the centre of Europe, three hours by train from Paris, surrounded by the medieval cathedrals and nice little brick houses reflected in charming channels. After all, Russians are used to paying huge money just for a week’s holiday amongst such a beauty, and I am happy enough to get paid for living here. What’s not to like about such a nice long holiday? In the beginning, I was happy to invite my friends to share my foreign adventure, sleeping on the floor of my tiny studio, visiting museums, exploring local bars and making day trips to nearby countries.
At some point this attitude changed. Now and again, I witnessed my colleagues at a renowned international University finishing their temporary jobs and heading towards some other places: USA, France, Hong Kong or Japan. I started asking myself whether I want to return to Russia. I did not like the news coming from Russia: less freedom of speech, more militaristic rhetoric, shameful election tricks, prison time for political opponents, and, finally, ‘a short victorious war’ with a neighbouring country. I also did not like the news from my Russian colleagues: more bureaucracy in the higher education, less academic freedom, and less opportunities for research.
But those were not the main reasons for staying away from Russia. What changed was my attitude to my life abroad. I stopped living a long holiday and started building a real life in a new country. I moved to a better flat, bought some Ikea furniture, made some friends and developed some nice weekend routines. Most importantly, I met my partner, also an immigrant from Russia. We moved in together, adopted a cat and decided to make this country our home.
I got my Dutch passport and a year later I got rid of my Russian passport, which was required by my legal status of a ‘naturalised’ Dutch citizen. Today, three years after I’ve got a letter confirming that I am not a Russian citizen anymore, I am not sure it’s over yet.
I keep telling myself that I don’t miss Russia. But am I completely frank with myself? I do miss my friends and some places in Moscow where I loved to wander as a teenager, but most of these places have changed irreversibly, and most of my friends are available on social media. I do miss snow in winter and long walks in the woods in summer, even though it snows occasionally in the Netherlands and there is quite a large forest about 20 km from my house. I do miss some familiar food products, even though I can replace most of them with similar local foods. What I miss the most is feeling at home. Yes, I have my Dutch passport, and it is the only passport I have. Yes, I can speak the language, but not to the extent I speak Russian. The more I learn Dutch, the less possible it seems to ever being able to master it to the extent of writing papers or teaching students. And I will never learn some essential Dutch skills, such as bringing my lunchbox to work, using a bike as a primary means of transportation or keeping the temperature in my bedroom at 15 degrees in winter. I am too old for that.
The more I think about it and the more I discuss it with my Dutch friends and other immigrants, the less clear the concept of Dutch identity appears to me. How to be yourself in a country so different from your country of origin? How to become Dutch without betraying yourself? How to preserve your identity and integrate it into the Dutch society? And how to feel at home in the Netherlands without irritating the locals, the authentic Netherlanders who call themselves ‘autochthones’ as opposed to us, ‘allochthons’?