Living Abroad – The Upsides

Wouldn’t it be cool to live abroad? To bask in the Tuscan sun in short shorts like Armie Hammer, to become a samurai like Tom Cruise, or perhaps even ‘eat, pray, love’ your way around with Julia Roberts. Our films, books and popular culture have long been enamoured with the idea of leaving home for foreign shores. Whether for escape, adventure, or business, the expat life is captivating to many. In recent years, with the advent of air travel, globalisation, and EU citizenship (sigh), it has become an even more common experience to spend time in another country, among some groups even a right of passage. I mean, who hasn’t been in a conversation with that person who has shamelessly name-dropped every foreign destination where they’ve lived (“That reminds me of when I spend the summer on the Amalfi coast…ya ya ya.”) I should say now, as an expat myself (though I’m not really a fan of that word), if this has ever been me I’m sorry. And even as I write this, that almost seems a humble brag. So sorry, again.

I’ve lived in the Czech Republic for the past six years and have been reflecting on my time abroad in recent months, on the up and downsides of life in a country not your own. So this will be my attempt to share some of what I’ve learned of the good things that happen when you leave your home nation for a spell. I’ll follow it up with the not-so-good things in a later post.

Perhaps the best thing about being away from your home country is that suddenly your nationality becomes at once more and less significant. You automatically become both an ambassador and a scapegoat for the successes and failures of your nation. I didn’t really think much about being a Brit before I left England, but now every Brexit crisis and Royal drama is my concern, and I am the go to expert on anything to do with the UK. This can be a bit awkward, especially if someone tries to talk to me about the Premier League, of which I know nothing, but is also strangely affirming. I have become more proud of where I’m from as a result of leaving, not in a nationalist kind of way, but simply in terms of recognising the good things and the things I miss. Being encouraged when people speak warmly of my home and getting to bring my foreign friends home with me. Seeing home through others’ eyes has been a joyous experience for me.

But as I also said, your nationality also becomes less significant when you are away from your home. There’s a sense in which I’m simply ‘foreign’ when I’m here. Not Czech. I therefore immediately feel a greater affinity with other foreigners and, a bit like when you start University, feel an immediate closeness with others in a similar situation to me. This has led to forming fast and deep friendships with those I’ve met here, from all manner of nations. The unique ‘expat community’ is a wonderful thing to be a part of and I have been able to visit the homes of many foreign friends. I’ve had experiences in places I never would have thought to go without my experience of living abroad.

Perhaps a more subtle but nonetheless powerful thing about living abroad is in the way your underlying attitudes and ideas can change. You notice just how different perspectives are from different nations, yet also how much is shared. Before I lived in a place surrounded by Americans, for example, I think I felt that they were basically confident Brits with cowboy accents, yet I have learned so much about and from my American friends. I think that it’s more accurate to say that the only thing that is the same is the language, and that that is also quite different at times (my favourite recent example is learning that when you really need to use the toilet, Americans might say you’re ‘prairie dogging’ while Brits are more likely to go for the rather more literal ‘touching cloth’). I have learned from my friends and they have learned from me. We have changed and grown together in this funny melting pot that is international life.

It’s not one long Italian summer living abroad of course. There are real costs to moving far from home and I worry that some of the ways I’ve changed will mean it’s hard to readjust should I move home one day. But, I have to say, that I think the risks are worth it.

 

 

The Unlived Life

As I’m sure many of you have been (and SHOULD BE), I’ve been watching the wonderful series ‘The Crown’ over the last week. As a Brit who feels fairly ambivalent about the monarchy most of the time, it’s incredible how some patriotic pomp can bring a tear to my eye, like some kind of collective memory. Perhaps they’re tears for some bygone age of Britishness, perhaps out of a national pride which feels all too rare these days. In one of this series’ best episodes, Aberfan, it was simple grief and horror at the terrible tragedy portrayed. Yet I think what gets me most is the simple fact that it is a drama about family. About a family in an extraordinary situation, but a family none-the-less.

One of the moments that stood out for me as I have been watching was when the Queen spoke of her dreams of the ‘unlived life’. It’s been an ongoing theme of the show that these people are stopped from being who they could otherwise be by the situation they find themselves in. Yes, they have extraordinary privilege, but also overwhelming pressure. The pressure to be completely visible and yet completely unavailable. To have no opinions and no slip-ups. Ever.

For the Queen, it is the simple dream of an unlived life as a horse-breeder. For Prince Charles, to be free of the pressure and expectation of waiting for his mother to die, and to be able to marry the woman he loves. For Princess Margaret, it’s simply to find personal happiness.

This theme of the unlived life struck me as it’s something I think we all feel. We all dwell on the roads not taken, the choices we might have made. That feeling of ‘everything would be better if…’

Perhaps a difference for the Windsors is that there is no way out for them. For us, these feelings often take the form of regrets. We always wonder if there’s a way to change our situation, to rectify mistakes. Of course, as we are not under the incredible pressure the characters in The Crown face, there’s a sense in which we always can.

Not that I’m saying we should live a life full of regrets. Not at all. I’m just noticing something about my thinking and about our culture, especially as I seem to have reached the end of any predetermined path. We tend to obsess about which way is the right way. We wonder whether there’s some abandoned path which would have been happier, more successful or more fulfilling. I think this robs me of contentment where I am, just as it robs happiness from some of the characters in The Crown.

What’s the answer? We’re not stuck in our situation like the royals. We can make changes and, when something is making us unhappy, make a course correction. But at the same time, I think we can choose to be happy where we are. I think we need to. For dwelling on roads not taken is an invariably destructive course. A course that will lead us to view our lives now as a poorer reflection of some other reality. When really, we need to see the beauty and wonder around us to keep going.

We need to recognise the ways in which this is the best of all possible lives. We need to try to be the best versions of ourselves. Or else we’ll be tipped, flailing, into the uncertainty of never-knowing, always looking for the better option.

So be sure to watch this wonderful show, but remember to recognise and appreciate the ways in which you are living, for want of a better phrase, your best life right now.

Where there’s cake, there’s hope

Oh 2016, why do you seem to have it in for us? Why do you seem to be slowly taking from us the things we love? From Alan Rickman to David Bowie, from our British pride and place in Europe, to the prospect of President Trump. Now, once again I am mourning something dear to my heart, as the Great British Bake-Off seems to be crumbling before my eyes, like an overdone Victoria Sponge. Is there really no space for moist and spongy goodness in the world (well, on TV) anymore?

To those of you out there who have not experienced the simple joy of watching 12 bakers vie for the title of ‘Star Baker’ in a tent in the English countryside, then I cannot advise you strongly enough to check out this TV treasure while you can. A hugely popular show in the UK for almost ten years, the Great British Bake-Off consists of various cake, bread and pastry related challenges, as amateur bakers aim to impress the judges with their delicious creations. It’s a pretty simple concept, yet it’s execution is such to make it, in my opinion, the only reality TV worth watching.

Perhaps the thing that sets it apart the most is the camaraderie and cooperation that goes on between the competitors. Of course, they all want to win and to impress, yet they also help each other out, laugh together and cheer one another on. There’s no back-biting, bitching or trash talk. The most dramatic things to happen are when someone’s cake falls off their bench or their ice cream melts. Such is the Bake-Off’s popularity however, that these moments are discussed seriously over tea for days across Britain.

So why is this show crumbling? What could go wrong with this perfect mix? Well, the BBC has broadcast the show since it began, but now another channel has ‘outbid’ the Beeb for the rights. Unfortunately, this move has meant that three of the four presenters/judges are leaving the show and sticking with the BBC. This is such a big deal because Mel and Sue (the show’s presenters) are pretty key to the show’s success, helping to establish the supportive environment that sets Bake-Off apart. Apparently, they have been known to get alongside struggling and tearful bakers, swearing at the camera to make the footage unusable; protecting the show from becoming the overwrought and emotionally manipulative thing it could otherwise have been.

I have no doubt that the Bake-Off can survive the changes that are ahead, yet I am saddened that something as simple and joyous as a show about people making cake, has become the collateral damage in a bidding war. Each week, as I watch the current series of the Bake-Off (the last with the BBC), I am reminded not just of how much I love cake and love baking, but I am reminded of home, of how a talent shared is a talent used well, and how competition doesn’t have to be vitriolic and fractious.

I am sad that this little shaft of light has been prematurely (though hopefully temporarily) blocked out, yet I know that as long as there is cake in the world, then hope with endure.

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A Letter to My MP

Dear Anna,

Having clicked on the link I saw on facebook entitled ‘Breentry: Reject Brexit,’ I studiously searched for my MP and sent you the generic outraged plea that had been created. I’m sure you have received many such generic emails. When I received notice from your email that I needed to include my address and contact details, I thought I would reply with a more personal expression of my feelings about Brexit. For my feelings are strong and yet more subtle than any generic statement could encapsulate.

I have to say that I have felt very upset and disappointed about the result of the referendum, as my call to ‘Breentry’ (though what a terrible word that is) would suggest. I am actually currently living in Prague, Czech Republic, having been lucky enough to take advantage of the freedom of movement for all EU citizens. I am registered in Broxtowe as an overseas voter, having lived in Nottingham for 8 years previously.

The experience of living in a different nation has been an unfailingly positive one, as I have been able to learn more about different nations and peoples, recognising differences and similarities and most certainly becoming a more patient and tolerant person. The thought that future generations might not be able to enjoy this privilege deeply saddens me.

I recently came across a letter from prominent Czechs to the UK, in the run-up to the referendum. Here is a favourite quote – “Without the British legacy of democratic institutions, entrepreneurial spirit, common sense and pragmatic approach to problem-solving, the west as we know it would be much weakened, politically and spiritually.”

I feel that the UK has so much to offer Europe. That Europe has so much to offer the UK. I have seen and lived that. I have relished the honour of being an ambassador for the UK here in Central Europe and have learned so much about what the EU means through being here in a place which was so recently riven by war and destructive ideologies. Sadly, now I feel that the UK is the place riven and divided. It is my home and I am proud to be British, but I have never felt more ashamed of my nation. The response from my friends here, both European and from further afield, is one of consternation and sympathy at the mess we are in.

I want to make a plea to you and to your party, as our leaders, to represent not just the democratic mandate you have received to vote leave, but also the equally democratic incentive to seek compromise. To seek an arrangement where freedom of movement, goods and ideas can continue with the EU, as easily as possible. Without wanting to sound cliched, I am one of the 48%. Please ensure that you represent us in your decisions as well as the 52%.

Thank you for your service as my representative.

I trust that you will take all these considerations into account.

Sincerely,

Samwise

 

Reflections in Murky Water

I was looking forward to time away over the summer for many reasons; the reliable sunshine, the travelling, the chance to see friends and family, the barbecues, and not least, the chance to reflect on life here in Prague. It’s a teacher perk, the long summer, providing the perfect opportunity to get some distance from the day-to-day and to consider the past and the future. I was so fortunate to have a full six weeks away, travelling around in the USA, Israel and the UK, and I was eager to seek God’s will for my future in that time.

I often find it really hard to spend time with God on holiday, when routine is interrupted and breakfasts move closer to the afternoon than in term time, and this was certainly the case this summer. As has been the case for the past year, I have found my relationship with God far too one sided; God being good to me and I only belatedly realising just what he has given me and done in and around me, if I notice at all. My half-hearted attempts at connecting with God amounted to reading the Bible in a hap-hazard manner and attending church wherever I ended up. Yet as I look back I am yet again amazed how God has been gently changing my thoughts, actions and viewpoint over the summer.

On my travels I was lucky enough to visit San Francisco, somewhere I had long wanted to visit, perhaps due to my love for the rather naff Bond movie A View to a Kill, featuring, among other things, a blimp battle atop the Golden Gate Bridge. I was struck while there just how far I was away from ‘home.’ By the time I made it there I hadn’t been back to the UK in over eight months, not that long in the grand scheme, but still the longest I’d actually been out of the country. My homesickness wasn’t painful, more wistful and bittersweet perhaps. When I arrived back in the UK for a visit a few weeks ago, I was again surprised at my depth of feeling for the land of my birth, and by just how nice it felt to be home (it may have helped that I went straight from the airport to a National Trust property, proceeded to have a walk in the rain, followed by a cup of tea and a slice of cake. Some stereotypes are true.)

This came as a surprise mostly because this last year has been a whirlwind of new and wonderful experiences, as I have settled into Prague and my new job. My thoughts went along the lines of ‘This is so great, why would I ever go home?!’ Yet it’s clear that home has a strong pull on me and the week or so I spent in the UK was perhaps the sweetest of my summer. God exposed my heart and I was surprised at the attractiveness of moving home and being in this place where everything is just more familiar and where I fit just a little bit more nicely.

I don’t know if I will stay or go, both hold real attractions and benefits. God has been so good in blessing me with opportunities both here in Prague and at home, and he was so faithful in helping me to reflect over the summer, pretty much despite my feeble efforts. I think I have a tendency to look inside myself when I seek to reflect. What do I want? What thing would be best for me? I have been challenged to look to God, in his word and in his person, as I seek to understand myself and my place in the world (both literally and figuratively.)

After the summer I feel less sure than ever about where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to do. But maybe that’s a good thing. My prayer is that in the uncertainty and indecision I would seek God and allow his will to lead my actions, and that through the process, my love for and trust in him would grow as well.