“Why do you collect all this stuff? You don’t need it.”
“Why would you want that?”
I haven’t met one person yet, who understood. That’s often our life’s quest, isn’t it—to be understood, unconditionally? Perhaps through my life’s context, my intentions will be easier to grasp.
I don’t remember much of Kyrgyzstan, where I was born to Russian parents in the late ‘90s. I am told there was an abundance of fruits and a pleasantly hot climate with mountains on the horizon.
I don’t remember the struggling economy and the flight to Russia in 2002. I do remember “Stalinka,” my grandmother’s huge apartment in Tver, a robust build of Stalin’s time with thick walls and tall ceilings. I remember going to a small village, Chukavino, three hours from Moscow. I remember swimming in the Volga, bareback horse-riding and drinking fresh milk. The only food came from farms and a truck that delivered supplies twice a week. No telephones or Internet in sight.
I remember moving to Saint Petersburg and exploring 400+ museums, endless bridges and canals, and gorgeous subway stations. Our apartment had at least three doors with at least two locks on each. I wasn’t allowed to walk alone at night. Neither was my mother.
I remember moving to Guelph in 2011. Having to choose only one stuffed toy and one book to bring. Explaining to my best friend why I won’t be going to school with her anymore. Realizing Canadian-spoken English is entirely different than the written British English I learned in school. Guelph never felt like home.
This isn’t my sob story. This is the reality of immigrants everywhere, and it is often more gruelling than this. We never know how many places other people were thrown around, like seeds carried in the wind, eventually finding a fitting patch of soil to plant in.
After Guelph, I moved to Ottawa, missing the 5-million-person metropolis of Saint Petersburg. I lived in the Glebe, then on Laurier Avenue East, and finally on Sweetland Avenue before graduating and moving to Hintonburg.
During my university career, I realized that Ottawa quietly became my home. The first place I truly chose to plant my roots after being thrown around the world; finding a patch of soil, even if temporarily. Walking around the streets, getting to know different neighbourhoods, I felt comfortable, at home. I was here because of my own conscious decision.
People in my neighbourhood are so kind too. I am a part of my local Buy Nothing group on Facebook and the gifting economy is beautiful. Almost every region in Ottawa has its own group. People post things they want to gift to others and ask neighbours if they have what they need. I’ve received extremely generous gifts from my neighbours, from brand-name clothing to vintage fine bone china to antique furniture. Countless books, from Kafka to Hemingway to Virginia Woolf. I love rescuing items someone no longer wants and giving them a new home. It brings me a special pleasure to research antiques and learn their history. I love cleaning up these old things that have been around much longer than I have and finding a home for them. What was their story? Were they a gift?
I recently realized why exactly these gifts are so special to me. It’s because as immigrants, we come with nothing. We buy everything here, at the point of destination. We can’t bring our grandmother’s crystal on the plane or find a new spot for our grandfather’s clock. I don’t have that connection to my family. I don’t have things passed down from generations. So acquiring my own personal collection of beautiful things gives me that sense of home. It’s something I can gift to my family or pass down to my children. It’s beautiful to look at antiques and know they are mine and I saved them. The feeling is similar to the gratitude I feel towards my rescued cat. I saved her, but she also saved me in countless ways. When I drink from my fine bone china teacup on a sunny Sunday morning, I feel rooted and grounded, like I belong. As an immigrant, that feeling is elusive. Almost always out of reach, out of grasp, harder for the less-privileged than me.
I frequently gift things too. Clothes I don’t wear anymore, books I’ve read, random products I’ve never used. It’s a beautiful exercise to practice non-attachment to material things, ironic in contrast to everything I said above. It’s a fine line between accumulating a legacy and collecting unnecessarily.
I collect and rescue fine things because they root me here, in Ottawa. The one place I’ve felt truly at home in the last decade of my life.
Born in Kyrgyzstan and raised in Russia, Sonya has now planted roots in Ottawa, where she graduated from the University of Ottawa with a Bachelor of Commerce degree. Sonya is a freelance digital marketer with a focus on content writing and storytelling. She loves working with local businesses and creates art in her spare time. Explore Sonya’s work at sonyagankina.ca.