Years ago, my father was on his way back to Baku from a small town in Russia, where he had spent a year working on a contract. He had made some money and was bringing it back home. In Moscow, where he had a few hours to kill between the flights, he met a zemlyak. A compatriot. My father was very excited to spend a few hours with someone from Baku. What a great coincidence, right?
When he woke up, he did not know where he was. His briefcase and the suitcase were stolen and all that zemlyak (sympathetically) left him with were the passport and the ticket. Also, whatever zemlyak had added into my father’s beer that day poisoned him for weeks.
So you are thinking what a stupid man! Why would he trust someone he does not know? Well, because people tend to relax when they meet their fellow countrymen abroad.
I don’t have that problem.
When I took mother to Paris for a long weekend a few years ago, we sat down for a coffee when two women joined our table. They overheard us speak Russian and assumed they were welcome to sit with us. They were chatty and friendly, but on my way to the bathroom I told my mum in my broken Azeri to watch my handbag. They were also getting ready to leave without paying their bill. I stopped the waiter and told him they were not really with us. Mother was impressed. ‘How did you know?’ She said.
Well, to start with, I don’t assume people are my friends just because they happen to speak the same language in a foreign country. Besides,those two women were rough. Everything about them was asking for them to be locked in prison. Also, they wanted to know if my English husband was beating me up, or forced me to sleep with other people. That sort of gave them away as extraterrestrials.
However, I noticed that people abroad often turn to their fellow countrymen for friendship and advice. I was fascinated when I visited a friend recently. She lives in London but everybody around her is from Russia, Ukraine, or some other Russian speaking country. Her nanny is Russian, her cleaner is Russian, even someone her cleaner recommended to fix something in her flat is Russian. I thought it was...well, just different. Why does she feel the need to surround herself with fellow countrymen? I wondered if she felt they would give her a better deal or a better service? Did she trust them more than the locals or other foreigners?
Because, I don’t think she should.
A lot of zemlyaks we meet here, in London, are really quite dodgy. Also, there is this element of being from different planets. Like those two women in Paris. Some of us had it easy. We either had met someone, fell in love and happened to relocate, or just got relocated by our employer. We assimilated easily and got normal jobs and mortgages, just like thousands of other people. But some had it tough. They are, so to speak, proper immigrants. They lied and stole and burned bridges to escape their reality. They have hard lives and get forced into prostitution by their husbands they had met on the Internet. They are out there fighting for survival, with their teeth and claws. And the last thing they are thinking is that you are their best friend just because you happen to be their zemlyak. Just because we speak the same language does not make us all the same. In fact, looking at people my friend surrounded herself with, I could not help but think that we could not be further apart.