New to the Parish: ‘The people of Dublin are more like rural people’

A Russian academic embarked on an adventure that took her to England and then Dublin. She was surprised by the differences between the two countries

“I felt beyond privileged to be experiencing something I didn’t even know existed.” Elena Narinskaya in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

“I felt beyond privileged to be experiencing something I didn’t even know existed.” Elena Narinskaya in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Being able to speak Russian only was never enough for Elena Narinskaya. Even after learning English at school, the Russian academic felt a desire to push her linguistic expertise beyond European boundaries.

“I started trying to learn European languages but they didn’t interest me. Learning a new language is like learning about a new world. Language is more than language. It opens your horizons; you learn about its complexities. Once you learn a new language, you’re never the same. It often helps me psychologically. Sometimes I step into another language and think about myself through this language. Then you can detach yourself from the situation.”

Growing up in Moscow, behind the Iron Curtain, she never imagined that one day she would speak Hebrew, Arabic and Syriac. As a young girl she developed an interest in foreign cultures through the gifts her father brought back from his travels.

“My father was an engineer and he travelled all over the former Soviet Union, backwards and forwards. I loved it because when he came back I was expecting treats and gifts. He used to bring us tons of different food because the Soviet Union covered so many areas: seven different time zones.”

After missing out on a scholarship to study in the US as a teenager, Narinskaya worried she had lost her only chance to discover “the world outside . . . Little did I know that in a few years’ time I would fly the nest and travel the world.”

While studying journalism and literature at university in Moscow, Narinskaya made friends with some American missionaries through her sports training on the badminton squad. “At that time anything foreign was terribly exciting. They looked different, they dressed different, they were smiling all the time with sparkling teeth.”

The concept of God had never featured in her daily life. “My first interest was in them as foreigners, as Americans. They just happened to be evangelical Christian athletes. We were atheists but we were not aggressive atheists. God was never a part of our family but he wasn’t a hostile party that we should avoid at all costs. This initial interest with the missionaries led to me discovering religion. It was just a curiosity at the start.

“My mother was worried at the beginning. She thought I was becoming a religious freak because I was so enthusiastic about it. But she made a clever move. She observed me for about six years, didn’t say much to me and then she noticed a positive change. She mentioned this to me after she became a Christian. She told me that was how her journey started.”

Everything just clicked

She began a course in theology and graduated from university with a bachelor of arts degree in the subject as well as a master’s in journalism and literature. She converted to Christianity during university. Soon after graduating she was offered the opportunity to study Judaism and Hebrew in Jerusalem.

“When I heard the word ‘Hebrew’, something just clicked. It was just a gut feeling and everything fell in to place. The most mind-blowing experience was discovering the religion – discovering Judaism and Hebrew, a new world in the Middle East. The complexity if it, the beauty of it, the ugliness of it, the violence and the history.

“I felt beyond privileged as a Moscow city girl from the ex-Soviet Union to be experiencing something I didn’t even know existed.”

After completing her studies in Israel, she moved to the UK where she studied and worked in Cambridge, Durham, Wales and Oxford. She found the transition from the Middle East to life in northern Europe a challenge. “The total immersion in Hebrew and Judaism that I experienced in Israel was a completely different story in the UK. It was a subject in Cambridge. One would say that Jerusalem would be challenging but it wasn’t. Britain was. Professionally, academically, that was an enormous learning curve.”

Last year she was offered a position as a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue at the Mater Dei Institute in Dublin City University. In September she moved to a country she had never really considered visiting.

“I wasn’t prepared for Ireland to be so different from the UK. Dublin doesn’t look like a capital city. The people of Dublin, they’re more like rural people.”

Narinskaya spent her first few weeks in Ireland searching for affordable accommodation. “I’m quite an organised person and I organise everything in advance, but it was absolutely impossible to find accommodation in Ireland from abroad. I remember going through the hell of being contested with 20 other people for lousy accommodation. I had temporary accommodation for three weeks and really until the last day I didn’t find anything. At the very last moment – as they say in biblical stories, at the 11th hour – out of the blue I got this old granny who took me as a lodger.”

Complicated Irish history

Narinskaya says people in Ireland place an “intense emphasis” on their Irish identity. “Just simple remarks make me aware of the painful past and the complicated history. For an outsider, it’s very easy to pick up on those things. You don’t even have to read between the lines; it’s very clear.”

She has also taken great interest in learning to appreciate the “subtlety” of Ireland’s natural beauty. “Everyone tells you how beautiful Ireland is but the beauty of this place is subtle. Because of the abundance of praise, one would expect a gobsmacking, mind-blowing experience in your face like you have in Jerusalem or Italy. You have to learn to discover this beauty and appreciate it in its subtlety. There’s also a certain austerity here. It’s a beautiful austerity.”

Narinskaya looks forward to following the events commemorating 1916 around the country. “I’m learning this history that I could have lived my whole life without knowing. I spent the millennium in Jerusalem and now 2016 in Ireland. I like the ride, I just wasn’t expecting it. So far it’s been a fantastic journey. I can’t really complain.”

  • We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past five years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish
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