Monday, 10 March 2014

5 Things That Annoy Me About Living Abroad

The romance of living abroad...

"I went to a postindustrial city in northern Poland to really find myself spiritually." I don't know about you, but I can't imagine anyone ever having said those words. People go to South-East Asia or India for that sort of thing. So how, then, did I find myself living in Poland? The short answer is: work. Since Poland I've lived in Sicily (for about two months) and Prague (for about two years). Most Brits leave their country of origin to escape (whether for two weeks or a couple of years) the "daily grind". I went to find it, and in that regard my travels have certainly been a success. In my case at least the defining fact of living abroad has been the necessity of work. In that sense it's no more exciting than living anywhere else (unless, of course, you're unemployed).

I don't mean to play down the positives: I've met some nice people and done some nice things, but probably no more than you would if you lived in, say, Swindon (actually maybe a few more - sorry, Swindon). However, there are some big differences between living in the UK and living "on the continent". Some of them are great (I can go to Germany by train in about an hour!) but a lot of them, while not awful, are just a bit annoying. So here are some things that are annoying, shared in a spirit of collective misanthropy. Come, be miserable with me!

1. People

Other countries are, shock horror, full of foreigners. People are basically a bit annoying everywhere, but culture plays a big part in how annoying they seem. Thus there's an irresistible tendency for outsiders to bracket the inhabitants of the "host country" together as one amorphous blob of odd habits and poor social etiquette. This, of course, is a complete fantasy, a sort of knee-jerk reaction to being stranded in a place where custom operates at a slightly altered symbolic level. People don't hold doors for each other here. They don't say thank you as much. They don't smile politely when they make eye contact with strangers. But so what? Basically, every Czech person I know is perfectly nice. What needs resisting is the urge, as a foreigner, to curl up in a ball of outsiderdom. As Descartes (probably) said, it's only by encountering the eccentricity of other cultures that you realise the eccentricity of your own. A bit of estrangement can be a good thing. That said, I don't know if I can stand having another door slammed in my face.

2. Language

I love learning Czech. I love its rigidly systematic grammar (although, thankfully, I haven't had to do anything too mind-bogglingly advanced yet). It's a language in which every noun has fourteen possible forms (seven cases; singular and plural in each). Add to this the fact that different nouns fit in to different patterns of declension, sometimes but not always determined by their gender (if, say, they're regular nouns these can be fairly predictable but get pretty weird if they're irregular). To give an example (from the admittedly tiny amount we've covered so far in class): Praha (Prague; nominative) becomes Prahu in the accusative, as in Mám rád Prahu ("I like Prague") because it's regular and feminine. In the locative it becomes Praze as in Jsem v Praze ("I'm in Prague") because the last consonant in the nominative form is "h" (nothing to do with gender). Then in the genitive it becomes Prahy as in Přijde do Prahy ("She/He's coming to Prague"). Still following? Excellent! Admittedly, that's just the first few (there are four more cases and for most nouns you need to learn the plural forms as well). Then there's the preposition-noun conjugations; perfective and imperfective verbs; the irregular genders of nouns; when to actually use all these cases; the fact that relative and normal pronouns also decline ("Who" is rarely just "Who" but changes with infuriating regularity), along with the declination patterns of adjectives when they conjugate with specific nouns, and so on.

All of which is fine. I think with time and effort and patience I might just about get my head around 50% of all this, give or take a few years. That would be pretty good. Not being an ambitious language learner (nor, given past precedent, a particularly successful one) I'd be happy with that. But the fact is, most daily encounters - in shops, on trams, buses, trains and metros, in offices, at the doctor's - can spare neither time nor patience and take a dim view of effort. Met with so much pig-headed refusal to understand my pronunciation (I can't roll my rs in the prescribed Czech fashion), it all becomes a bit dispiriting. Plus, my ability to stop my brain panicking and actually listen to people speak is only just catching up with my reading skills. So now I can get my head around simple sentences if caringly enunciated by a sympathetic speaker. All too often though, the speaker just wants me to go away quickly. What's galling about this distaste for my Czech abilities is that it's my job to listen to people garble, mispronounce and frankly ruin my language. I put up with it as a job. I have to listen to it all day, every day. Is it too much to ask to be allowed, just occasionally, to garble someone else's language a bit?

The joys of travel...
3. Work

My job is probably no worse than anyone else's. On the one hand, I get to talk to lots of people and make five year-olds race each other whilst pretending to be crocodiles. On the other, it pays awfully. Wages are low here by European standards anyway, but apparently no one at school has had a pay rise in fifteen years. Wages haven't even risen in line with inflation, which, assuming the school's income has remained steady, amounts to a pretty big saving. Partly it's the market: there's a lot of competition, prices are very low, and there's no shortage of labour. I know very little about my school's accounts (maybe a little more staff involvement in this area would help us understand the situation?) but can't help but feel it's also an industry-wide attitude problem. I'm in no way singling out my school (others are far worse) but EFL teaching is built around total flexibility: expectations of teachers are low and expectations of schools are low because the work is short-term and staff are easily got rid of. I can't help but feel this filters down to students. If your underlying attitude to your workforce is that they are eminently disposable (to be taken maximum advantage of while they last and to be let go lightly the moment they express dissatisfaction) then naturally teachers will end up being demotivated. How can this not affect students' perceptions?

Old Town Square, Prague

4. Shopping

In Britain supermarkets are decadent banquets swollen with delights plundered from the far corners of the earth (in my mind at least). There, saffron is sold by the bucket; caviar costs the same as baked beans; an infinite variety of herbs and spices spills from every shelf. They're so multicultural, in fact, that even Papua New Guinea gets two aisles at the local Tesco Express (in my mind). The average Asda is a sort of apocalyptic Noah's Ark of world cuisine, the kind of post-nuclear utopia of fat first-worlders imagined by sci-fi writers since the fifties. Except they're here and now. Not so in the Czech Republic (or seemingly anywhere else in central or eastern Europe). By comparison, supermarkets here are deeply austere places, stocking strange jarred meats in jelly (not dissimilar to cat food) and tangled, tough-looking roots with scary-sounding names. Maybe it's because Czechs like to grow vegetables in their out-of-town gardens, but city supermarkets often just don't have much interesting veg. For those of us without a "connection to the earth" this means puzzling over wilted cabbage and already-mouldy tomatoes as a weekly ritual. I want my post-nuclear utopia back.

5. Getting things done

Admittedly a vague sounding category, it's really quite simple. When something breaks and you live near home (as in real home - where your family and friends live) someone will usually help you out on the cheap. Broken washing machine? No problem because someone always knows someone else who can fix it/scrap it/sell it for parts/give you their old one or relegate it to some dank corner of a garage. But when you don't know anyone (other than equally unhandy Humanities graduates) that gets a bit harder. Without the support networks you simply take for granted at home, you are left stranded in a hostile sea of unpronounceable bedroom fittings and inexplicably complicated shop return policies. This ties in with shopping. To my dismay I've realized that not only do I lack basic manual skills - like being able to drill a hole - but also, as a foreigner, I lack the social and language skills to successfully complete even simple tasks. When I was at the Czech equivalent of B&Q I found that I kept staring over the shoulders of the concerned women at the counter, looking for distant words, before eventually saying, 'Does she return?' in Czech. I waved my bag of light bulbs in front of them, 'Where is bulbs for return?' Then, despairing, I staggered off into the cavernous warehouse, all the more alone for having asked someone a question. The sad thing is that being a foreigner - even someone with a basic knowledge of Czech under my belt - inevitably makes you look a bit of an idiot. So after two years of living here my main achievement has been to reinforce the impression of myself as a bumbling, awkward, ill-at-ease Englishman of the old school variety. In that sense I suppose I have "found myself" after all. 

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