Monday, 6 September 2010


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.


  1. Funny coincidence - just a few hours ago I met a big family strolling along Laguna Beach promenade. They were clearly from Baku - I could tell by the characteristic mixture of Russian and Azeri words. Ten years ago I would have definitely stopped to introduce myself and chat about this and that, but today I just walked right by them... Like Scary, I too have seen my share of former compatriots with varying degree of craziness. My favorite is an elder gentleman who once gave me a short lecture on importance of speaking Azeri language (I learned later that in order to get asylum he and his family pretended to be Armenian (!) refugees from Azerbaijan).

    Scary is talking about two categories of immigrants, but there now is a third, more interesting one: rich people. They could be businessmen, relatives of prominent (read "corrupt") politicians, or both. These folks don't come over here to make a career or build a family, they're here to enjoy life. Something tells me they wouldn't want to socialize with the first two categories of immigrants...

  2. I hope I can express myself correctly here.
    You've just described how I felt once I took some days off in Buenos Aires. I was traveling by myself, and there was a Peruvian guy on my same group. He was even Limean. He was also traveling by himself. And the guide said: "wonderful! What a coincidence". And we were put together. But once we started to talk, I felt the only thing we had in common was our departing airport. Nothing else.
    How sympathetic were those guys your dad happened to meet!
    ¡Saludos desde Lima!

  3. Thank you for your post. It always amazed me about immigrants. They move to another country but they don't want anything to do with that country's culture. They don't want to learn the traditions and customs of their new homeland. Instead they prefer to surround themselves with their compatriots with whom they feel comfortable. They don't want to get out the artificial bubble and get to know the country they live in because it actually requires some extra effort. Instead they prefer to stay in the same community. To say nothing about the envy, the backstabbing within the community if God forbid you happen to actually actually break out and do something better in your life...


  4. "Everything about them was asking for them to be locked in prison."

    Ha! Awesome.

  5. Well, I'm sure that your father was fortunate to come back alive. Some of the other encounters with so-called "zemlyaki" can go really South. I always ask my wife and children to speak in English outside and make no contact with unknown zemlyaki. Call me paranoid, but it's safe and preventive of any long-hour time wasting with fellow zemlyaki.

  6. I have the same feeling as well with Spaniards abroad, so most of the time I avoid speaking Spanish when they are around. Finding hemvatans is not always good :))), it's only good if you feel like speaking the language.

  7. Wow, some new people here? Welcome @ Reyhan, Aza and Tigran! Thank you for your comments.

    @Reyhan: I am confused, you speak of Spaniards as zemlyaki? But you sound Azeri, no? :) I am easily confused, as you can tell.

    @Tigran: I know. He was very lucky. My father has a stunning mixture of naivity and intelligence.

    @Aza: You said it. I am sure that jealousy is a problem when it comes to hanging out with some other type of zemlyaki. If they live a very (and it happens so often) different life to yours, they can't help but ask: why is it so different? should we not have what she/he has?

    @Gabriela: You expressed yourself beautifully. :)

    @Riyad: Yes, of course. There are those guys, too. But they are not immigrants, they often come and go as they wish? :) Stop for a bit of lunch at the Ritz, visit Harrods and back to Moscow in time for dinner? :)

  8. I agree. I'm amazed at people who voluntarily lock themselves up in their national "ghetto"s abroad. They watch "old country" TV, buy food at the ethnic store, their kids date and marry others from the same group. When I ask them "why?", they say, "you know how it is". And I say, "no I don't". I married an American colleague while living in Baku. Why would I want to lock myself up in a "ghetto" now?
    The only plausible explanation I could come up with, is that their language skills are holding them back as a virtual prisoners abroad. And it's hard, so they give up early on and then just get used to the lifestyle.
    That said, I have some wonderful friends here how are from ex-USSR. I enjoy their company as much as I enjoy the company of my American friends. I don't discriminate either way, if there is a good company, I'm there :)

  9. If my wife and I are in France and we hear English speakers (in a restaurant, for example), we speak French to one another. Not because they're likely to rob us or anything but because so many of them are embarrassing. We probably are embarrassing too, but in a different way. By the way, I think zemlyaki sounds a great word.

  10. Read this blog just in time, when I dissapointed with all my zemlyaki,whom I know here and who watching aztv in London and eat azeri meal ONLY))))))))

  11. Hello Scary Azeri. I feel really sorry for what happened to your Dad. I know how you feel.