Thursday, 1 February 2007
An Impressive Young Lady
Alex Horne – 1st February 2007
Owen and I are generally optimistic. When we set off to Trafalgar Square for the Eventika-produced Russian Winter Festival back in January we fully expected to get double figures' worth of new nationalities. After all, there were fifteen potential Soviet-ish countries to tick off, we'd surely be able to find two thirds of them.
Unfortunately, as Owen has already explained, all we actually found was a large quantity of cabbage and dancing; lots of fun and an excellent day out, yes, but not the sort of foreign figures we'd set our sights on. Yet our hope remained undented as Nastia (our mate's girlfriend and festival organiser) invited us instead to visit her office in the next couple of weeks for a Russia-themed meeting – just before rushing off to encourage a man in an enormous box to get on stage and dance expressively.
A couple of weeks later, then, we made our way to the futuristic Chelsea Harbour for what would certainly be our most formal encounters so far in which our journalistic incompetence was well and truly exposed. Nastia had very kindly persuaded two of her colleagues to take part in the project and first to take the seat opposite Owen and I in an entrance hall on the ground floor of Eventika's office was Katerina, a high-flying 22 year old from Belarus.
From our first shaky introductions to her own elegant departure, Katerina had the upper hand throughout the meeting. Because of the workplace environment it felt a lot like a job interview. But one of those job interview which results in the interviewee getting the job and immediately sacking the interviewers for being inadequate. I kicked things off by tentatively showing her the flag we'd found for Belarus and stuck in our (childish) folder and enquired slightly pathetically about the unidentified object on the left-hand side. "It's an ornament", said Katerina, in a manner so conclusive that I was unable to ask her anything else about it.
I did eventually find out that she's been in England now for two years and three months and that she's learnt English since the age of six both in school and university. In fact, she's familiar with more than just the language having visited her Somerset-based mother several times since she herself moved here at the turn of the century. Katerina's mum is a doctor for the Royal Society. She was invited to this country to experiment on a new species of willow-wood which may provide an alternative fuel source. "She must be in great demand", I faltered. "Yes she is", countered Katerina calmly. "Is it better money over here?" I asked, a little less hesitantly. "Oh yes", replied Katerina with a smile. "Belarus doesn't pay scientists nearly as well".
In fact, Belarus has problems funding more than just its scientists. Half way through Katerina's typically impressive degree in Tourist Management, French, English and Latin, her own university in Minsk was suddenly closed by the government.
"I could have gone to a state university", she explained, "but it wasn't going to be interesting enough for me". Instead she migrated to England, completed a degree in Business Management at the University of Sunderland and soon snapped up a dream job at what is a very rare British/Russian company in one of London's wealthiest spots.
True to form, she's now helping to set up a 'Global Luxury Forum' which is expected to attract some of the world's richest people. She's not yet met Roman Abramovich, this area's most famous 'Global Luxury' type figure, but with the Russian market expanding as quickly as it is, she says she encounters 'top people' like him all the time.
"Are people from Russia very different to people from Belarus?" asked Owen at this point, steadying our journalistic ship a little. "No, we're fairly similar", said Katerina, patiently. "Except people in Belarus are a little more patient. For that reason it took us a long time to achieve our revolution, much longer than Ukraine, for example. And now we've got peace, we're happy to be patient, not to rock the boat, and to keep things peaceful for as long as possible".
Belarus is indeed a young country, recently independent, growing rapidly but obviously not quite in Russia's financial league. Like Lyosha the Latvian, however, she was too young to really remember the moment Independence was won. She was well aware of last April's 'difficult' presidential election, of course, but is unwilling to talk about politics while in England. Having left Belarus to attend university here she says her name is already on certain lists somewhere and she doesn't want to jeopardise her return to work there by being seen to criticize the government in any way.
We chat about her life in England instead. "I've felt comfortable here from the very first day", she says and I ask her if she tends to socialise with other Belarusians, Russians or Brits. "Oh, I don't really go out", she laughs. "I'm very busy here. But I do eat in Russian or Georgian restaurants – although I also love continental cuisine. And noodles. Wagamama is the best."
Katerina is an impressive young lady. She's already come along way (Minsk is 1167 miles from London) but I'm sure she's going to go a long way further at great and highly efficient speed before too long. And although I was slightly intimidated throughout the meeting, I did also find her funny, friendly and very good company. Well done Katerina.
"I do have a Georgian friend I could introduce you to", she said a little coyly as she left.
"That would be marvellous", we agreed. And we're still sure we'll complete our Russian set in the very near future.
 In alphabetical order, they are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan.
 So, including her, we did get a fifth of the countries located in and around the Russia area, and felt that our faith had not been entirely unfounded.
 Something of a relief for me as I struggle to learn about the history of each nation we meet – You're just 12 years old? That's fine, I can manage that…