I am a mature student. I am an international student. I am also an EU expat, or immigrant if you like, who has lived in this country for fourteen years. At this point I should remark something funny, such as that after years of living in Britain, I no longer drink Pilsner Urquell but love a bit of “ye olde” English ale. That is, admittedly, not funny at all as well as being completely untrue. By the stereotypical “drinking” standards, I am a bad Czech person as I have never liked beer, always opting for wine if I have to.
Also, being a woman, I have never drunk much so one small glass and I am done for the evening. In fact, I am done for the next four to six months. My British husband says I am a cheap date although I sincerely hope that is not the true reason why he married me. Every year, I go through a ritual designed purely to remind me that I do not belong anywhere: staying in another country for more than two years changes you profoundly to the point that you lose some of your firm rooting but surprisingly gain something else, something more, something I can’t exactly put my finger on; something I have to call for the wanton of a better word, a kind of enlightenment. For it felt all those years ago as if someone switched on a light in the room I didn’t realise had been dark in the first place.
You don’t notice anything to begin with. Things appear to be similar or the same. The alterations to your original country are barely noticeable. Then your thirty great friends you used to have, become five that would never leave you even if you decided to fly over to Mars. You spend your first few visits chasing the twenty-five people you thought were also your friends. You travelled 1,500 miles (or in some cases more) to see them but somehow they cannot be inconvenienced to make it a few tram stops to meet you. You miss them but they don’t miss you. You grief for a while and move on. You are beginning to meet new friends who also left their villages behind for “a village” is a state of mind, rather than a place.
Stage two. Over the years, you witness how your country and city have changed. You are a different person, too, but you have not noticed until now. You see the flaws of your rosey past you did not see before. You mind the flaws to the point that it is unbearable to think of having to live with them again. Like shop assistants being readily rude to you. Or the casual racism of an every-day man you did not used to see because you were not aware of it. Ignorance is a mother of all intolerance and xenophobia. You used to be painfully ignorant, not knowing you are. Everybody was like this; it was normal. Moreover, being the other person, the foreigner in another country of a not exactly desirable origin, you have already experienced the devastating impact of casual racism of every day persons. It made you cry several times. You don’t want to inflict it on anybody else. You feel deeply uncomfortable.
Stage three. Back during your visits home, you try to explain your attitudes and opinions. You think it is your duty to change things for the better. People close to you snap each time. They don’t want to change. Who do you think you are telling them anything anyway? They think you are an arrogant foreigner who has come back to preach to them. They tell you, you would have been the same like them had you remained in the country. You are a traitor of your kind.
You return to your new, adopted home where you don’t completely belong either. You meet other people like you. You have become a foreigner everywhere. You are at home somewhere up in the air between your two imaginary countries, both existing mostly in your head. You have transformed into the citizen of the world, and it is actually fabulous and exciting but sometimes very lonely. You look distinctly European: your skin is pale, your hair light brown and eyes blue. You blend easily anywhere from Sweden, Lithuania, to France and Italy. Yet, the minute you speak, you are called exotic. It is my East European accent with “th’s” a “w’s” missing from the pronunciation.
So that is where I am at the moment. Making my home on the seat 4C on the way from Newcastle to Prague and back.