From Saint Petersburg To The Netherlands: A Russian Expat Tells Her Story

Empress Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, once said, I beg you take courage; the brave soul can mend even disaster. This is what Kristina did after moving to the Netherlands: take courage, find her lost self, and begin again. From Saint Petersburg, a city in Russia of more than five million people, our young expat fell in love, packed her bags, moved from Russia to the Netherlands, and began an unexpected journey with a heartening ending. Here’s her story.

If we’d like to comprehend what’s behind Kristina’s radical career change, from graduating as a medical engineer and completing a master’s degree in Entrepreneurial Information Technologies to being a resolute and committed physiotherapist student in Eindhoven, it’s fundamental to revisit the culture she comes from and the electrifying life she’d led. It’s only then that perhaps you’ll agree with me: she was meant to pursue a healthcare career and, unexpectedly, she did.  


Having grown in a loving family and exhilarated by the thrill of being in her early 20s, Kristina takes from the city and gives back to the community with all her youthful might. Accompanied by family and friends, she’s constantly on the lookout for new plays, concerts, operas, or ballets at either Mariinsky or Alexandrinsky theater. 

A big admirer of chamber theater, Kristina’s deeply touched by the performance Mysterious Russian Soul. Nostalgic, our Kristina recalls other occasions, how she’d sit near the stage, see the actors right in the eye, even listening to their breathing. At this very moment, I observe how remembering this experience awakens her whole being and exclaims, “You FEEL everything that’s happening on scene… and, of course, the language! Even if the performance was silent, I could understand everything!” The language. How could she not? It’s her culture, her language, her people, her home. Little does she know how soon she’d learn how it feels to have a sense of disconnection, being lost in the translation of not only the language but her sense of being. 

While in Saint Petersburg, Kristina’s hectic lifestyle doesn’t allow, or she simply brushes aside, thinking about the future. At the time, the most important aspiration is being covered: completing higher education. She's studying a respectable career, medical engineering. If choosing this particular career was her calling rather than fulfilling society's expectations, it's not so hard to tell. When younger, she fantasized about going to medical school, but its cost made it unreachable. She considered being a teacher as well but it was an unacceptable choice according to family standards. Hence, engineering was a profession everyone seemed pleased with, and that was that. 


Besides her buzzing life full of art, culture, and school, a big piece of Kristina’s heart is devoted to social service and volunteering. What does this tell us about her? Can you read between the lines? Maybe she’s following her inner call, or perhaps her mother’s inspiration as a nurse. Or both. We might never know. What matters is that while still studying, she joins two projects: Bridge of Generations, Scientific and Social Lectures and Children’s Hospice

The first mentioned project, Bridge of Generations, Scientific and Social Lectures, takes place at a retirement home where people from science, like former university professors, live. Lectures on their area of expertise are organized twice a month. Young students from different universities are invited to participate. The objective of these talks is to be a socio-cultural bridge between young students and former educators. I asked Kristina what her role was, to which she answered, “In this project, I was responsible for writing announcements on social networks, finding new places for the lectures, not only at the retirement house but in the library, Literary Cafe, or open spaces as well. Also, I had connections with universities...They helped by sharing information about us.” 

Here let us take a moment to picture her, at that exact moment in time. Can you imagine how much this fulfills her? How whole she feels? I dare to say it was a tremendous loss after she moved to the Netherlands. A big empty space that would later, luckily, will be filled in with something new in order to keep herself whole. It happens to many of all of us expats, am I not right? I wonder if you see a little of yourself in our dear Kristina. I do. 

The second project Kristina collaborates with is Children’s Hospice. It’s a place where, “...they strive to improve the quality of life for children with serious illnesses, ease their pain and bring joy.” Volunteers from this organization mostly donate their time: They help out mothers and caregivers by giving them a break to have a moment to themselves and recharge. I ask Kristina how it works, “ the volunteer arrives, they’d get a child assigned to them and would spend time together. If possible, go to the playground.

By now, we get a sense of Kristina’s moral values. As Willem, my 82-year old friend says, meer geven dan nemen. She cares about the legacy of elderly people and the vulnerability of children. She infuses her social labor with love and dedication. How is she supposed to know that soon she'll fall in love, and in the blink of an eye, everything will change? Nevertheless, it will also lead her to a personal and professional rediscovery, a beautiful transformation. 


We're still in Russia. Our protagonist had graduated from university and finished a master’s degree in Entrepreneurial Information Technologies. She's following the dream. Next in line: building a respectable and successful career. Her current job is one to which she applied several times until it came true: maintenance and implementation of medical information systems at a hospital. When she talks about this, her speech speeds up as she confidently explains, “This position included a technical part, implantation of Electronic Health Record, and my favorite part was customers’ consultation. Our customers were doctors in psychiatric hospitals. They had questions about our system and I helped them...If we had some new features, I explained them.” She’s 26. She's self-confident and thriving. Without knowing it, in a few months, all this will be left behind.


Before beginning this part of the story, Kristina warns, “I have advice. Don’t move here by the end of autumn or in the winter, and enjoy the first months before reality sinks in.” How did she end up in Eindhoven? Love, love, love! Two lovers meet but live countries apart. Distance seems to be the first and most important obstacle to tackle so decisions are taken. Everything's moving fast. It's like being on a fast train, departing not only Saint Petersburg but her city, country, language, and culture. Leaving it all. Her identity? No time to reflect on this. It's an intoxicating moment, how could it not be if she's in love? No time to spare on the consequences of what was taking place or would happen and, least of all, time to sketch a plan or imagine a future. 

Spring's blooming with plans! A wedding. A honeymoon. Summer unfolds, warmth, sun, and brand new adventures all around. Next, autumn shows up. Trying to adapt to everything and life as a couple. The train's come to an abrupt halt. She gathers her scarce luggage, steps down into the reality of a new marriage and an unknown life. This is it. An inner collapse. Eindhoven. A town. A little town. A tiny, little town. Leaves fall and tears cascade. Life slows down and Kristina, taking off her pink-stained glasses thinks, now what?


What to do and where to start? She braves up and joins a Dutch conversation group at Bibliotheek Eindhoven. It becomes a window into the lives of many other women looking for connection and a new beginning in the Netherlands. Some learn Dutch to integrate into society, others have no option since for their specific careers Dutch is compulsory. Like her, many are here to accompany their husbands and have no idea where to begin. Later, she finds an English conversation group and an expats support community that become a kind of family for women who are in Eindhoven because of their partners. Kristina remembers, “We were all on the same boat. It was nice to see that you’re not alone. Someone else has the same problem.

Time passes. Kristina and her husband know she needs a job. It's unquestionably a priority and so she tries, tries, tries, and gets nowhere. You might ask yourself, how come? This is what's happening: She comes across a position. It's either too high or she lacks the required experience, like programming. In addition, her English is good but not good enough. Devastating! During interviews, Kristina sounds insecure, inexperienced, and too frank. She has the interview, acknowledges she might not be the right person for the position, and waits to be dismissed. Years later, she realizes she wasn't confident enough but rather naive and somehow intimidated, leading to feeling fearful and powerless.


It's been a year since she arrived in the Netherlands. She's working on her relationship but has lost herself in the way. How to explain to your partner you're not who you were when you met? How can your partner accept this and help you through the monumental task ahead of you where only you can save yourself?  For Kristina, one thing has become clear: enough is enough. This is not Russia and she cannot replay who she was. Finding the perfect job, or a good enough one, is overdue. She realizes she needs a new beginning, a fresh start. Like J.P. Morgan said, "The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide you’re not going to stay where you are.” 

Our lionhearted Russian expat takes the first step, the step that will initiate a snowball of positive changes. With prejudice chained at a far corner, a brutal and painful process, Kristina starts working at McDonald's. She emphasizes,  “It was so difficult!” For her, it's not only about setting pride and prejudices aside, but also unthinkable to share what she's going through with her closest ones. Still today, some family members are unaware. “It's difficult because, in Russian culture, this is not a job for someone who attended university.” Does this sound familiar to you as an expat? In my experience, this is not only about Russian culture but about many others as well. Some people bring a status card to the Netherlands, hindering the possibility of reinvention. For the ones that come with a job, are already settled here, or possess a strong sense of resilience, it’s a different story, but for those who left behind what had given them their identity, it’s a metamorphosis: a profound change, a total transformation that modifies your core before awakening anew.  It takes immense inner work to overcome preconceptions and taboos we’ve grown up with. Some make it, some are in the process, some just can’t. 

Kristina appreciates the advantages the job gives: meeting Dutch people who were born in Eindhoven and want a steady and non-stressful life; and the possibility of working half-time. She smiles when remembering how she was asked which days and hours of the week she would like to work, “It was nice. You don’t have that in Russia. It was a good experience.” Salary is basic but what's priceless is the sense of independence: being able to earn money without asking her partner was a wonderful step that fueled her with confidence to rebuild her self-esteem. After a short time, a friend of hers working at Zara leaves the job and encourages her to apply. She does it. She gets it. Finding a job is no longer a challenge. This leaves room to think about what her next goal will be. 

At home, she and her husband look for a place to buy and so they do! It's in the city center and both can bike to go to school and work. It needs some renovations but they jump into it. Patience and lots of time are needed, but Kristina doesn't mind, she delights at the feeling of complicity with her loved one, building the foundations, brick by brick, of their life together.


When exploring career options for Kristina, she and her husband agree on something: whatever she is to pursue, she needs to go back to school and get a diploma. She discovers engineering is no longer what she'd like to do for the rest of her life. Was this an easy decision? Of course not, but clean and honest and real. Brave. Volunteering, helping others, the dreams of medical school, her mother’s example as a nurse. It’s actually an act of audacity to come to this point, and this is how she figured it out: Her best friend in Russia is a physio doctor. She remembers seeing her at work, the rapport between patient and physician. She concludes that in the Netherlands being a physiotherapist offers accessibility to both worlds, the one of doctors and the one of nurses. She finds an option at Fontys and decides to go to Open Day. After seeing the buildings and students, she makes up her mind and sets two goals: take the IELTS exam and apply to Fontys physiotherapy program. 

While preparing for the IELTS, she continues working at Zara and volunteering at Eindhoven's Russian school. Remember how back in Russia she thought of being a teacher? Now, every other Sunday, Kristina's actively involved with children living in Eindhoven whose parents foster their involvement with Russian culture and language. She helps them with speaking lessons and reading skills. She feels wholesome every second she spends with them; but in the meantime, the cultural shock isn’t over yet. According to her culture, achievement defines you. One concept she still struggles to understand is how some people, having a world of opportunities at their feet, choose to focus on enjoying life rather than a better life. How could they speak several languages and not be interested in pursuing higher education? How to reconcile the big contrast? She can't. What is clear to her is that she must not falter and work towards what to her is a better life


It starts happening. She gets the necessary IELTS score which she didn't believe she could get, enrolls at Fontys and her new path begins. She's invigorated by seeing new people, studying, following the dream. Nonetheless, she wrestles with the language and lessons' pace, fails exams, and at times is completely stressed out. To add to the mix, COVID-19 arrives and online school starts. It's the beginning of her third bimester and you know what? Everything turns out ok. She adapts, sets short-term goals, and does her best at keeping stress and expectations under control. She's found a new way of being and living. Now, having almost completed her second year, she's empowered with a sense of self-worth, accomplishment, strength, and resilience. 


At the end of our talk, we reflect on how seeing things in perspective helps understand the process one has gone through and the importance of finding something for oneself. 

When moving abroad for love, you must be mindful of not losing yourself. Be aware and ready. You might have to give a ferocious fight in order to recalibrate and keep your identity, as a unique individual with enough personal space where to grow and expand emotionally and intellectually. 

Kristina lives like this today: no big dreams, no big expectations, no ambitious goals. She doesn’t need them anymore. One step at a time and the certainty that she's in charge of herself. As William Shakespeare once wrote, "It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves."

Thank you, Kristina. 


Popular posts from this blog

Inburgering Part 1: Reading Exam

Resources and tips for your Spreken Inburgeringexamen

Learning Dutch and the Difference Between White and Brown Eggs