Doctor Zhivago, anyone?
Does your ex-pat life ever seem like a movie?
Do you wish you could rewind to that moment, that decision, that set you on a collision course with your life today?
For me, that moment is 1966.
I’m 11 years old, feeling very grown up because my mother and grandmother are taking me with them to the drive-in movie. It’s a big deal. It doesn’t matter what we see… until afterward, when my life was forever altered by the image of Omar Sharif as Yuri Zhivago, larger than life, passionate and desperate.
As far as I was concerned, if Russian men looked like him, and the women looked like Geraldine Chaplin, sign me up.
I can hear you snickering… Russian men should be so lucky! (No offense to all the Sergei’s of the world…)
Fast forward 25 years. I’m a young mother, with a daughter of my own (ironic, yes?) The future is about to arrive…I had taken a temp job when we moved to Houston, and on this week between Christmas and New Years, I’m virtually alone in the office, home of the use-or-lose-it vacation policy. But fortune was smiling because the person (with my resume in her hands) looking for me, had nowhere else to turn. “Can you help me find this person?” Looking at the paper she thrust in front of me, I laughed and said, “That’s about the only person here today. It’s me. What can I do for you?”
“Would you like to work in the Russia group?’ she asked. “Oh, I loved Doctor Zhivago!” (Literally!)
Thus began my road to ex-patriate life.
From 1991 to 1995 I worked for a large oil major, in a division focusing on the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States, as the parts of the former Soviet Union became known after the breakup). I met interesting scientists and learned customs and idioms of Russian and Azerbaijani languages. I was hearing the Molla Nasreddin stories and became fascinated with the culture and history. Soon, I began teaching myself Russian so I could converse and learn more.
I first traveled to Baku on a month-long business trip, my husband and daughter coming along for a week while I worked, then leaving me for a fun side trip to Germany.
It was during that trip that I learned my first lesson of ex-pat living: No culture is a monolith.
I found quickly that not everyone spoke Russian or bought into the Soviet mindset. Many people I met still held to their Muslim/Caucasus/Persian heritage and spoke Azerbaijani, a Turkic language.
That would be tremendously important in my business negotiations. Remembering not to assume anything based on what I had read or heard. No one person can ever represent all that a culture is. Culture is more than the sum of the kaleidoscope of people who live within its bounds.
My second lesson, so much more disheartening but no less valuable, was that Omar Sharif was nowhere to be found among these lands. (sigh…)
Though disabused of my delusions, I was transfixed by the young people. The spirit and will to survive was inspiring.
After discussing things with my husband, I decided to leave Big Oil and return to Baku to teach, another life long dream that had been on hold due to my husband’s frequent transfers around the U.S. The time was right as his bank was being bought out and he would likely get a severance package as branches were merged or closed. He could do anything he wanted and opening an international business seemed like a good choice.
However, as I was about to learn, being an ex-pat isn’t for everyone. Some, like him, like the certitude of having home soil underfoot, regardless of how well cared for you may be abroad.
In the end, I opened and ran my business alone while he waffled for three years over how to tell me he really in his heart of hearts didn’t want to live outside the United States.
Despite these setbacks, for me it was a time of discovery. Yes, I was lonely, suffering bouts of depression with all that was going on at home, working as an independent, missing the camaraderie that other company ex-pats had.
But I also learned much.
- I learned that I could be broke and find ways to make money (i.e., working 3 jobs at once to support my teachers- and not one involved a street corner… smile);
- I learned I could fix things (the front loader washer when it stopped with all its water inside);
- I learned not to fear life (I could walk home alone after work each night);
- And, certainly not least of all, I learned that I could be alone with myself and be okay.
I traveled, inviting my now college-age daughter to join me on adventures, and met incredible people who were kind and genuine.
In some ways, life does seem like a movie. Certainly it has NOT been Doctor Zhivago. Though, I did date a swarthy Iranian for a bit after my eventual divorce… (9/11 made that seem like not such a good idea for an American.)
To me, life sometimes feels more like a Woody Allen film full of angst and trials, but nonetheless, the heroine prevails in the end. … That much I already know.
So tell me, if life is like a movie, what movie would your life be? I’m curious!
If anyone could be your co-star, who would you choose?
Here’s my movie:
(This is an Animoto clip I created back in May, but it seemed right to include it here as an upbeat finish for this post.)