How not to become "Primorsky" Restaurant

"Cold" Magazine

April 2024

In 1998, I found myself in New York for the first time, and I headed to Brooklyn to see Brighton Beach. I think if I had gone there straight from the plane, it would have been difficult for me to stay grounded in reality. Brighton Beach felt like a place frozen in time, yet it had traversed space and settled next to the ocean like a relic from the Torzhok of the 1970s. Almost all the signs were in Russian. In the restroom of the "Primosky" restaurant, locks and toilet paper holders were broken, adding to the familiar ambiance.

However, the waitstaff were attentive. When the three of us arrived and ordered three cabbage salads, the waitress - a beautiful, hefty brunette of indeterminate age with a bun - said, "Two will be enough for you," and, seeing our puzzled faces, added confidentially, "The portions are large." Local stores sold black bread, buckwheat, cottage cheese, and condensed milk, as well as sweets like "Bear from the North" and "Squirrel." I appreciated the tact of my friends who had long since left, always delighted with my nostalgic packages, to which I delicately added candy rolls.

Another characteristic of this place was its people, who, despite their diversity - from charming old men in neck scarves to respectable old ladies with violet heads in wide white pants to sprightly forty-year-old jokers in caps - almost did not integrate into American life.

Brighton Beach residents watched the program "Vremya" (which, it seems, no one in Russia watches anymore) and pondered the fate of their homeland. They cursed America and loved America, but almost never engaged with it. And if they did, it was often through special Russian-speaking "agents," who made their modest profit on slightly better knowledge of local rules and language. These people had left the Soviet or post-Soviet country, often putting in tremendous effort to do so. But they remained more connected to the life they had left behind than to the one they found themselves in.

Currently, I live in London, and my emigration journey is almost four years old. Now I understand much better the Russians from Brighton Beach who surprised me back in 1998.

Emigration is incredibly challenging. Of course, it became much easier for me when I found my circle of friends, when it became clear that I could work in London. But most importantly, I embraced the idea that I would never assimilate. I would never speak English without an accent, never be truly "one of them" - not "fully," not even "largely."

The memory of former Brooklyn Russians evoked a sense of longing in me and, honestly, a fear of stagnating in time and becoming like the "Primosky" restaurant with broken locks and large portions of cabbage salad. This is a common story for immigrants around the world. Many "Brooklynites," after moving somewhere else, mentally do not relocate, experience depression, disappointment in the move, feel loneliness, and struggle to maintain close relationships. They fear the future and wish to return to their country of origin regardless of the situation there.

I dealt with my fear in the usual way: by asking people in my life and social networks and reading articles on the subject in search of adaptation strategies. By adaptation, which is generally understood as adjusting to new environmental conditions, I mean settling into life in a new place so that subjectively, life is no worse than it was before. Perhaps better in some aspects, perhaps not, but enough for a person to say, "I'm happy I moved."

Here, I need to digress for a moment and say that my psychological adjustment in Britain was aided by my experience of being Jewish and an "intelligentsia" (as our English teacher affectionately called us at school) in the Soviet era. In Soviet times, I always felt that I didn't quite belong in "my" country. As I understand now, this prepared me for a significant portion of the immigrant experience. Such experience helped me. And for those in Russia who have long considered themselves completely at home - especially successful professionals whose national identity has never been in doubt - it's probably even more challenging.

After interviewing people and reading literature, I discovered that the factors contributing to adaptation can be divided into the following groups:

  1. Attitude towards language. It is understandable that the ability to speak the language of the country you moved to fluently and eloquently helps with adaptation. But it's not the most important thing. For most people, this does not come immediately and almost never as well as they would like.

It's essential to learn to use the language as a tool. The main thing is that you are understood, and you understand others. Even more important is the mutual intention to understand each other. One of my colleagues, noticing my struggles with my terrible English, calmly said, "It's not just your problem; we also need to make an effort to understand you, and it's important for me to be understood by you." I was touched, and it added inspiration and freedom to my communication.

  1. Personal activity, or if you like, active socialization. Not passive (where you are invited to someone's home or to a concert - somehow, this doesn't help much), but active: you integrate into the new reality or offer what you can to others: you study, work, volunteer, create communities, organize lectures, evenings, and so on.

  1. Creating a mixed social circle, ideally including people from three conditional groups. 1) Those with whom you can speak your native language and share a common cultural code. 2) Those with whom you can speak the language of the country you moved to, but who, like you, are immigrants. 3) People who were born and raised in this country.

  1. Curiosity about local culture (its traditions, food, art, history, nature, and so on).

  1. Building relationships with the city, village, or neighborhood where you settled. Studying the architecture, choosing "your" places: favorite cafes, bakeries, corners, streets that you fill with personal associations. I remember when I first moved, my colleague and friend asked, "Have you found a place where you can enjoy a cozy coffee yet?" She knew a thing or two about moving.

  1. Meaning. A clear understanding of why you moved. For example: "I want my children to study in a school where there are no 'important conversations,'" or "I don't want to make 'acceptable compromises.'" Or perhaps: "I'm afraid they'll conscript my son," or "I want to pursue science where it's possible." The list could go on.

  1. A sense of development and enriching experiences. Understanding that as a result of moving, you finally learned the language, learned to survive in different conditions, met amazing people, mastered a new profession, and saw the world.

  1. Creating a home. It could be your own home or rented accommodation, but it's essential to make it "yours." This is quite an intimate process. For some people, "wherever they place their chair, that's home," while for others, this is entirely insufficient. For some, the space becomes theirs when they start inviting others over, cooking for them. Some people grow their gardens. And for some, it's essential to get a dog or fish.

  1. The feeling that there is no other home. In other words, what was once home no longer exists. Many who have left have nowhere to return to. They are fire victims. All they can do is try to save "valuable things" as far away from the fire as possible. It's scary to see closed theaters, banned plays, books stuffed into trash bags, or confiscated from libraries. Fortunately, we know that "manuscripts don't burn." And partly precisely because outside the fire, they can be preserved.

  1. Acknowledgment of loss. Any emigration, even the most desired and planned, involves loss (of the past familiar life, of familiar smells, favorite places, the ability to easily meet and hug loved ones), and the experience of grief from this loss. If the loss is not acknowledged and experienced, normal adaptation is impossible.

Therefore, it is extremely important to treat it as grief, including maintaining, to use the precise expression of the wonderful Italian psychotherapist Gianni Francesetti, "double loyalty." Loyalty to what we loved in our previous, pre-move life and loyalty and openness to the new life, new conditions, contacts, new favorite places. It is essential to find such a place for the past in the present so that it remains significant without overshadowing the new.

All of the above does not mean that to adapt to a new place, you have to "forget" about Russia once and for all. Of course, like many of my compatriots who have left, I follow the news from Russia. And of course, I care about what is happening in the country where I was born and spent most of my life, and around it.

Comments from some still living (and already not living) people in Russia like "you left and can't talk about the country" sincerely amaze me. Of course, we can. And worry, and think, and reason. It's understandable that the perspective of those who left and those who stayed is different. But this precisely creates a more complete picture.

By the way, I don't think I would be so immersed in the news if not for the war. The grief from what is happening and from the fact that many cannot or do not want to return, on the one hand, hinders adaptation, taking away the strength and time that go into immersing oneself in "Russian news," and on the other hand, supports a sense of belonging. Paradoxically, there is a plus in this: many who share the same values as I do have found themselves in a similar situation. And this - the ease of finding like-minded people - is precisely what facilitates adaptation.

In numerous articles devoted to adaptation during emigration, there are two more factors not once mentioned by my interviewees. One is expected - age: younger people usually find it easier to adapt; the other is unexpected - appearance: people who outwardly resemble locals find it significantly easier to adapt.

I am very grateful to everyone who shared their adaptation experience with me. Thanks to them, I once again came into contact with what helps to adapt in another country. Perhaps it's not always easy to follow these recommendations, but if something from this list resonates with you, it will become easier. I know from my own experience.