When I use the word “expats” I mean it to refer to English-speaking people living in a foreign land, not knowing many people, and forging an artificial sense of community with other people in similar circumstances. Expats may have moved to Berlin or Budapest for a job relocation, or as I read in the expat-read magazine “Funzine” a common reason is they chase love–literally. An American will move across the world because his sweetheart is Hungarian only to have his heart broken within a few months–but he finds himself a consolation prize: a forced but proud new love of his city. His love is thus accidental but he embraces his surprising change of plans anyways and tries to find a job teaching English under the table and perhaps applies to some English language graduate program to keep himself occupied until he figures out what he really wants to do with his life. Or–he decides to become a techno DJ, and uses that as a vehicle to tour and see Europe. In this book that was published around 10 years ago, Prague by Arthur Phillips, tells the story about a group of expats living in Budapest in the early 90’s who “settle” for the city but long for the “better” city to live in–the title city, Prague.
It is not easy to summarize an expat-type. But one thing I have noticed is that the expat is a searcher, a dreamer, a socially/environmentally conscious college graduate, and and as this blog points out: often white. Some expats seem to run away from something personal.
In my recent attempt of being a Human Rights student, most of my fellow colleagues had traveled and volunteered in developing countries in Africa, South America, and Asia. This arsenal of experiences came in handy for them to refer to and support their credibility of being concerned and socially conscientious individuals. While one might call these types “bleeding hearts;” another apt description or label can be either “activist” or “community organizer.” One of my friends, who is not a Human Rights student, but rather in a more traditional field of law that is more hard-nosed and “realist” even criticizes me for my “idealistic views.” In a conversation I had with her, she did not agree with my notion that bribery was totally corrupt and should be outlawed. Coming from a post-Soviet republic, she gave me a reality check by saying if she wanted better service in the hospital–such as more pillows or more attentiveness from nurses–she had to pay a “tip” of sorts to the nurses. It is easy, coming from the States, to have a world-view that everything is black or white, and to believe that all Soviet Russian cities had informants, and that people there were really socially conscious etc. In conversing with my Russian friends, who are history-buffs but also come from cities in Siberia and beyond–not every Russian family was afraid of informants. “It was the bigger cities, more centralized, that were famous for having the fear-inducing informers” explained a Siberian to me the other day. He also came from a mixed family in that one side were Party members and as a result benefitted from that, and were leading figures in his town. His other side descended from the merchant-class, and although they were outspoken anti-communists–nothing happened to them.
When I lived in Berlin, I lived in a series of different flats. I chose to do this for the first few weeks to get a better idea and taste of each neighborhood of Berlin before I made my final decision. I lived in Schoenberg in the West, which was not terribly interesting and quite dark at night. My more interesting experiences came from house and ferret-sitting for a couple on holiday, and following that three-week gig, living with a techno DJ and a jolly good-natured Brit. The DJ had moved to Berlin because he had absolutely loathed living in the States and the jolly Brit moved because he had fallen in love with the city during his study-abroad year in the city. Following that time, I then lived in a flat that was occupied by modern interpretive dancers who would occasionally get drunk and have dress-up parties. The reason I know this is that a couple of Sundays, I would walk through the living room on my way out in the morning to find glittery masks and various theatrical props strewn across the floor.
Many college graduates choose to teach English overseas for a year. I think this is a great idea, opportunity and I have been contemplating this possibility myself. In some instances, an expat will be matched up with a home-stay family which probably helps ease the transition into the new culture. One aspect I see lacking among expats is a strong sense of community. Expats come and go every 6 to 12 months. While I have made some of my dearest friends living overseas; I seem to lack a community that is physically stable and that I can always return to. For me, Los Angeles is home–a place I can return to because I have my family there more or less but the great majority of my friends are anywhere but there.
One of my favorite cafes in Berlin on Danziger Strasse was basically owned by an early-retired guy for the sole purpose of having a place to relax with his friends over coffee. It was a cozy cheery locale where the manager would often give me a dozen croissants at the end of the day because there would be new ones the next day. I noticed unlike some of the more popular cafes and establishments, this was a local-frequented place that might as well be renamed “Community Cafe.” I would see the same people, sitting and arguing over politics while leisurely sipping frothy lattes. Sometimes they would try to lure me into their discussions, sometimes repeatedly even though my German is “sehr schlimm.” One of my favorite features of this cafe was: there were seldom any expats or tourists–except for my then fellow expat friend whom I brought to this cafe on occasion.
Although I had the word Community and suggested importance of it, drilled into my head throughout Sunday School and summer camp, -I now can appreciate it after having lived on my own for the past five years. I was bullied and teased as a child and this motivated to embrace being by myself early on. Initially, I would hide in bathroom stalls but I wised up and thought I could do something better to pass the time during my recesses and lunch breaks. I thus decided to make my budding loner-hood more productive and have been a bookworm ever since. I remember the first book I read in the library was a young adult’s version of Daniel in the Lions’ Den. I somehow identified myself with Daniel and the “Lions” as most of my classmates. I would only bother hanging around the lions’ den when I had to–for class etc. My yearning for travel as a means of escape was born around then.
Someone asked me, the other day “What are you running away from?” This could be construed as the same as “Why are you here?” or “What are you doing in this country/city?” Not all expats are running away–it could very well be the opposite–they are chasing or pursuing something and thus might seem lost because they don’t know what they’re pursuing yet. Time will tell and their deck of hands will reveal themselves.
Budapest, Krakow and Prague are considered to be three of the must-go-to cities to visit this year and I am fortunate enough in that I will have visited all three of them and lived in one (Budapest for 6 months+) by the time I return home in April.
The first day I was in Krakow I got lost by taking the tram in the wrong direction of Nowa Huta, which is more industrial than the Old Town/Kaszmiersz which is where I wanted to go. But even despite feeling that I was “stranded” or in the “middle of no where” young Poles were able to tell me in English how to return in the right direction. Tired and overwhelmed by the unfamiliar territory at Dworec Glovny, I had not double-checked the sign of the Tram I had entered. The same thing had happened in Paris where, the night earlier, I was exhausted by walking in the Louvre for three hours and did not read the direction or final destination of the metro. However unlike in Paris, where it is quite obvious that even though the fellow passenger knows and acknowleges they know English but continues to speak in French–in Krakow, people are more willing to speak in English even if it is a bit rusty.
When one thinks of Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, the first things that come to mind are usually the Berlin Wall, Communism, the Second World War, and then maybe Pope John Paul II. Krakow was de-mystified when I went on a free walking tour organized and led by Pawel Mrozowicz, a student at the local Jagiellonian University. He is one of the most enthusiastic tour guides whose passion and knowledge of Polish history–that he broke down into “episodes” of the “soap opera”–was infectuous and I probably learned more in three hours than I could in a ten-week course of Polish history. He led the group to lesser-known sites such as the “Boner Palace” to St. Mary’s Church to hear the hourly bugle call. One member of the group asked about the logistics of the job of the bugle-trumpeter. Mrozovicz responded that good-naturedly that the trumpeter did his job out of great honor and was possibly motivated by that and appreciation of tourists who waved to him from below. And that he probably was on Facebook saying to his wife, “Be right back in ten minutes, got to do some bugle calls!”
In this article about Krakow, a 24 year old painter admits that the first thing he craved when the Berlin wall fell was a Barbie doll, a typical symbol of the West. I was once on a bus that was going through the former East Germany and talking to my seat-mate who grew up in the former GDR. He casually mentioned that the first thing (out of possibly many things) that his fellow “Ossies” craved evidentally were bananas…because the shops had run out of them within days. Not to be too corny–they went bananas for bananas.
Another common-place thing one would find are obwarzanek, which would resemble a product between the union of a pretzel and a bagel. The closest cultural item I could think of are the Russian bubliki.
To be continued with more photos…and later this month notes on Prague.