The Expat: Sonya Kunawicz

Sonya Kunawicz in action at Second Story.
Sonya Kunawicz in action at Second Story.
From: Manchester, UK
Age: 34
Profession: Teacher
Education: English and Linguistics at University of Manchester
Last book read: The Devil’s Workshop
Last film seen: Monsters University
Gadget: iPad

There’s no way of cutting short the story of Mancunian teacher Sonya Kunawicz and that the reason she came to live in Argentina was partly down to Stalin.

She says: “I’m here by accident, of course. Here’s a backstory. My Russian granddad fought in the Russian revolution on the White side — I believe I’m from a rich family, back in those days — and he was captured by the Bolsheviks. They shot everyone else and as he was only 17, they said to him ‘go on, just run away now, and have a nice life.’ And he did. He became a maths teacher and it was all very middle-class. But as he’d been on the Czar’s side, one day his name came up on one of Stalin’s lists and they said ‘you need to be deported to Siberia immediately’ and off he went with my grandma and my dad’s two eldest siblings. They had a terrible time there, obviously.

“World War II was on, and the British eventually went to Siberia and rescued mainly Poles and also some Russians — my family is from Belarus. The British said ‘we’ll just put you somewhere safe until the war ends’ so they were taken to Uganda, which is where my dad was born, in a refugee camp. At this point his older brother Mickey Mikhail was about 18 and they said he could fight in the RAF, so off he went. My dad didn’t meet his brother until he was about five and they were living in Britain. Uncle Mickey, as we shall now call him, said ‘hello, I’m your older brother Mickey and I’m an engineer. I’m off to Argentina for a year for a job.’

“He got on the boat, and as we know it’s a long voyage, and on the boat he met an 18-year-old Polish orphan. We’ll now call her Auntie Kazia, who was coming across with her siblings to live forever. They fell in love on the boat and got married when they arrived, and Uncle Mickey never came home — and now I have Argentine cousins.

“Then, I became single in a horrific manner, just a few weeks before I turned 30 and I was living with my parents. Sad. And I thought I needed to do a new thing for me and that I’d move to Spain as my friend Tom lives there. I thought ‘I speak a little bit of Spanish and that will be nice,’ so I looked at jobs but they were a bit shit as they hardly paid any money, and it’s hard to get a good job there as everyone wants to go there.”

Of course, the next stage of Sonya’s vague plan led the Mancunian to the Southern Hemisphere. She says: “I saw a job in Argentina advertised and thought it was a good one, but too far. So I put it out of my mind then every night I was thinking of it. So I thought ‘well, I’ll just send off for the details,’ and I was able to do everything they wanted. Then I thought, ‘well, I’ll just write a little application’ and I sent it. And I got an interview, which was on Skype — I wore bare feet to it, which felt very nice. Then they said ‘can you come to London?’ so I went to the East India Club on St. James’s Square and I was sent a dress code. I went in a Mark’s & Spencer dress. It was a very quick interview and I thought that it either went really well or really badly. But I was quite a good prospect as I had an Argentine family; I think it was a big thing. And then I thought ‘if I get this job, that I don’t think I’m going to get, I can meet my Argentine family. And that will be exciting!’”

As luck and giving a good interview would have it, Sonya was soon winging her way to Buenos Aires to meet another branch of the Kunawicz clan.

“There aren’t many of us: the English side, the Argentines, one family in Poland plus a long-lost cousin in the Philippines who has a talk show on TV. So the family was very excited.

“While my wigs and ashtrays were bobbing over the Atlantic on a pallet, I was flying over it and my school normally arranges for the headteacher to come meet you at the airport and take you to your new flat. And this happened for me, but also my Argentine family came to meet me. Everyone was taking photos, it was thrilling. I spoke a little bit of Spain Spanish, and as you know that and Argentine Spanish are quite different. They gave me a medialuna to eat at the airport café, and I said ‘what’s a medialuna?’ Then the headteacher came and found me and met my family, and I was thinking ‘this is the strangest start to a job that anyone’s ever had.’ That was my first day.

“I came here blind. I always think if I’d researched it better, I’d have been too scared to come. My brother had visited our family so I knew it was a nice place. And I knew I needed an adventure and that if it all went wrong, I could just come home. And I didn’t give it any more thought than that as I never believed I’d get the job. Now, when I look back, I can’t believe I did it — and I don’t know if I’d do it again.”

Although Sonya doesn’t really consider it a brave move, it was a big decision given that she had only previously lived in York, besides Manchester.

“I didn’t go on a plane until I was 26 — I’m not well travelled — and I’ve only been to Spain, Germany, Amsterdam and here. But it would have been awkward not to accept the job, but I was extremely bored with Manchester. And after visiting Tom in Madrid, I felt that I could live somewhere else. Besides, I came here on a three-year contract so there’s a time limit on it and it’s not like it’s forever. The good thing about living abroad is that all your mates think you’re dead brave and bold, but I’m not at all. I’ve only done something that makes me look brave and bold. In fact, I’m scared on a daily basis. I go to the greengrocer and get baffled and confused. I still manage to buy my fruit, but I’ll be kicking myself all the way home that I got my grammar wrong.”

In fact, it’s the simple challenges that keep Sonya both amused and interested.

“Going to the post office in another country is another adventure, It’s all paperwork and queuing systems that you have to work out. I go and I think ‘what do I have to do to achieve this thing?’ Like the first time I had a phone call in Spanish. I was talking to the bank in Spanish and it was a big buzzy thing. Talking to your bank isn’t normally big or buzzy. So doing these things somewhere else makes it into a little adventure — and I like that.”

During the first few weeks, Sonya’s biggest challenge was adapting to timeframes. “Dinner time, bedtime. There’s an extra meal — merienda, what’s that? — so adapting to new times was confusing. It was all very exciting and different and not Manchester in the beginning.”

After three years, the teacher will return to the UK at the end of 2013 and besides her friends and taking part in the Second Story narrative performances, Sonya says she’ll also miss living in her bubble.

“My life is organized for me — I get taken to school and don’t have to think about bills — so I live in an expat bubble, which is enjoyable. I’ve become more tolerant of noise living here, as everything’s so noisy! And having queued up at Immigration many times, I’ve very good at waiting now.”

Obviously, Sonya’s life could have worked out very differently, had her grandfather not moved to Britain.
“My granddad had the choice to settle in the UK or Mexico. My dad’s brilliant but he’s quite shy, so I think if he were Mexican, that would be hilarious. In Argentina, I say I’m English as people don’t get the British concept, but I don’t feel English as I’m half-Russian. Being here is the first time I’ve ever called myself English.”

Buenos Aires Herald, September 14, 2013
Ph: Beatrice Murch
If you’ve enjoyed this article about Sonya, you might like to meet Benjamin from Alabama.

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