The creator of a women's community in Portugal tells about her immigration experience
Anastasia Stepanchikova moved to Portugal 6 years ago, created a women's community, runs a book club, and teaches West Coast Swing for free. We met in Lisbon early Saturday morning to discuss her immigration experience, get some tips for "newcomers," and understand what you need to be mentally prepared.
How did you choose a country for your new life?
I went and looked. First, I went to Southeast Asia, to the Philippines, where my friends lived. It was great there, but it turned out that it was not for me (palm trees, coral fish, and beaches quickly bored me). A few months later, I moved to Turkey. I love Istanbul. The city is beautiful when you are a tourist, but I could not live in Istanbul: suitable infrastructure for a pleasant life is only in the center, and you must buy drinking water. I went back to Moscow, where I met with a friend who had just returned from a trip to Spain: Oh, how cool it is there! I wish I could move there! Listen, I said, let's go and spend the winter there. We lived in Málaga for three months. After that, my friend decided that she would emigrate to Spain, she still lives there, and I decided that no, no, Spain.
What was wrong with that?
A communicating with Spaniards! They're very noisy, very loud. I couldn't make friends with anyone like I was used to making friends in Russia: with long and deep conversations and a hundred common discussion topics.
I decided to drive around Europe to have a look around. Portugal appealed to me because at least the conditions for legalization were clear. I renewed my ticket in a month, and in another month, I realized that the Schengen visa was ending. It was time to decide. Every year I ask myself, "Maybe that's enough?" I answer, "No, it's good here. It's been six and a half years - it'll be seven in May.
Let's remember when you first thought about moving to another country?
When I made that decision, the problems in my country were not as apparent as they are now. But the seizure of Crimea happened, and peaceful protests became impossible. So I decided to leave. I left not "where" but "from," looking for a place to live.
How did you get your residency permit?
I got a student visa first, and then I got my residency permit.
I was a designer in an advertising agency. When I left, I started working as a freelance designer. At one point, I even thought about creating my agency. But then I wanted to take a deep breath, reduce the amount of control, and learn new tools in design, and I took a job with a company. I planned to find a way to combine work and study. Now my company gives me many more exciting challenges and tasks than I expected. It's great to have the motivation to develop.
What turned out to be important in Portugal? I usually answer, "The people, the food, the climate." So it is. Most Portuguese speak English. If they don't speak English, they will try hard to make you understand each other. The Portuguese have a very positive attitude towards foreigners. They are open to making new acquaintances and communicating.
In Portugal will be easier if you're used to bureaucratic quests. You must be willing to communicate with the locals and do not expect to be able to live on a "reservation ."Many issues must be solved in person, meaning you must learn the language. You can wait for documents for several years. I applied several times for a replacement driver's license - my documents were outdated, and I had to do it again. It took me two years.
The second thing that made me stay was the climate. It's not as hot in the summer as in Spain. It's a pleasant winter here if you can handle the lack of heating.
In these almost seven years, have you tried to make bacalhau? (Note: Bakalyau is a traditional national dish made from salted and dried cod that has been soaked in water for three days beforehand. There are many recipes for the word. Every Portuguese homemaker has their recipe).
Oh no! I don't like bacalhau either! The Portuguese don't believe it. They say I haven't tasted "the one" yet.
What's your favorite place in Portugal?
I live near the ocean. It's always been a dream of mine.
Immigration changes our lives. What was harder?
When I left, my head was still at home. It was tough to realize that my friends and I were starting to drift apart. We began to lose topics for conversation. You always have issues to discuss when you meet someone regularly and live in the same place. Then I made new friends here. There was one problem. You're just starting to be friends with someone, and they suddenly decide to live in another country. Continuous movement is very characteristic of expats. You gradually get used to this ease in dealing with people. It was tough for me in Spain, and moving to Portugal helped me accept it.
Was the creation of the Portuguese Book Club an attempt to make up for the lack of communication?
My friend Vladimir invented The Book Club. It was the beginning of a pandemic. The book club became a place for us to socialize; the lockdown made finding a place to meet difficult. Then Vladimir left, and I thought I should continue the tradition. I made a second version of the book club. It was necessary to unite people with the same interests. Reading is one of my hobbies. I like to read books; I want to discuss books.
In the first version of the club, we chose one book, read it, and discussed it. In the new format, we have yet to choose one book. Instead, we meet to share who has read what is exciting and who can recommend what. No spoilers. And that's great because you get fired up about reading something you would never have chosen. It broadens your horizons. Lately, we've been discussing Remarque's "A Night in Lisbon" a lot - in tune with what we're seeing now. From what I've read recently, I liked "Station of Lost Dreams" by China Miéville — a steampunk fiction. I've never read anything like that before. It's a book I would never have chosen, but I had a lot of fun reading it.
Another one of your hobbies is dancing.
This style originated on the West Coast of the United States in the 1950s. Yes, I wanted west coast swing to develop more in Portugal, so now a friend and I teach it for free. We meet on Sundays. First, we have a lesson, then practice for everyone. I want to have more people dancing, to invite teachers for workshops.
How did you create a women's community in Portugal?
Finding friends three years ago and having them speak your language was challenging. Katerina and I made our club to allow people to see each other, communicate, meet, advertise their services, and do workshops. To become the center of the unification of Russian-speaking women living in Portugal. It is very supportive of all immigrants.
What advice can you give someone to choose a country to move in?
Decide what criteria are really important to you. Answer the questions, what do I need to live? What climate, what food, and what language do you need? Make a list and then travel to cities and countries. Or ask questions in Facebook expats groups. Immigration is not something irreversible; you don't cut off your arm. You can change your mind at any time and come back. There's nothing wrong with that.
Let's imagine a person who moved away a month ago. Where should he or she start? What would you advise him or her to do?
I would start by finding a community of like-minded people. Any immigration is about losing social ties and building new ones. If a person begins to make it early, he or she faster they adapt and integrates.
Until recently, before the pandemic, the world seemed to make borders conditional. Once you bought a plane ticket, you were already in another country. But then everything changed. Do you think the world will still come to that?
I would very much like it to be that way. Moreover, I like the idea that the state is the manager. It would be great if people could choose to pay their taxes, to which managers. What services does he get for his taxes? So that every state would seek to attract new citizens with "perks." Our country is by the ocean - come and visit us. A high level of safety exists in our country - welcome to us. People choose where they want to live, and it's in the state's interest to attract the best.
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Photo by Natalia Zhuravleva.