Friday, 18 April 2014

Four Underrated Things about Living Abroad

There are some nice bits abroad

What's properly worthwhile about living in a foreign country? Actually, not the things you'd assume.

It's not down to learning a foreign language, which is of course a perfectly justifiable thing to do but something that can really be done anywhere. It's certainly not down to meeting new people, which again can be done more or less anywhere. People are probably all the same and certainly someone's foreignness doesn't mark them out as intrinsically more valuable. Of course, here I'm the foreigner, a fact which marks me out either for curiosity - like a baffling pet that occasionally, parrot-like, says a proper word, much to everyone's amusement - or casual disinterest.

What makes living abroad really worthwhile is, at root, having a minimal level of estrangement from the everyday world around you. A few years ago I watched a TV show based around the idea of strapping a pillow to the front of one particularly bumbling man and seeing how he got on looking and feeling a bit like a pregnant woman. Foreignness is a bit like the pillow: a fixed, slightly embarrassing weight that accompanies you wherever you go and makes paying for shopping and using public transport slightly more annoying processes than they need to be.

Daily life

But that rather tenuous metaphor doesn't quite cover it, because the underlying sense of alienation needn't be unpleasant (obviously pregnancy needn't be either). In fact, living abroad gives one key advantage to those who do it: the time and repeated exposure needed to develop a sense of the small social contrasts that define and particularize places. My semi-permanent foreignness gets me closer to the reality of daily life than a tourist but still bars me from being absorbed entirely into it. I realize I sound a lot like a smug hippy, but living somewhere really does get you intimate access to things you just don't notice on a weekend trip. 

Here's four of those specific to Prague and the Czech Republic.

"Like frontier railways": Prague's heroic tramways

4. Public transport

I should preface this: I'm definitely not a trainspotter. Everyone hates public transport - that's a given. And in practice I hate it too. But strictly in theory I'm a believer in how a city's public transport can define it. The red and white trams of Prague are iconic, while its metro system is strikingly dingy and surreal. I'm not really interested in carriage numbers or what model of tram I'm riding - again, I swear I'm no anorak (well, I do secretly  have my favourites). More important than the models are the routes - the scouring of the city by twinned tram carriages, cutting between hills and over rivers like frontier railways (well, a bit). Not to mention the metro stations: bleakly austere dungeons of grey marble, often home to vast, semi-deserted underground shopping centres. In this permanently nocturnal habitat whole working lives play themselves out to the hum of escalators and the constant shuffle of feet. A few shoppers mill in the perma-gloom, bathed in bleary, flickering yellow lights. Bright fashions and fishing essentials are displayed inside shop-fronts, on pale mannequins never to see the light of day. All this marks a significant philosophical departure from London, where no one is ever encouraged to stop anywhere inside a tube station. After all, when have you ever found a toilet at a tube stop? In Prague they're everywhere, invariably guarded by a bouffanted, cigarette-puffing older lady and her rough-looking boyfriend, the walls jazzed up with a few stylish pictures of dogs or flowers, doilies covering the desk, obligatory 1970s radio crackling out forgotten hits. And always an ancient and dank looking armchair. Both above and under the ground, the transport system delineates a second city built into the margins of the first.

"A permanently nocturnal habitat": Under the ground

3. Neighbourhoods

Prague is not the most neighbourhoody of cities. It has them, like everywhere, and they have their unique characteristics, but broadly the demographic mix seems pretty consistent. True, there are more older people in Vrsovice than anywhere else and Prague Four, which is huge, seems to have a lot of young famlies. And of course no one's ever going to mistake the Old Town for Skalka. But the neighbourhoods I've always had a fondness for are the ones outside the historic centre, especially some of the big communist-era estates, and this is because some of them are really quite nice.

Picturesque housing estates

It's often difficult to picture nice housing blocks in western Europe: we're partly conditioned by the epic failures of the sixties and seventies to think of them as universally blighted. No doubt in Prague too there are blighted estates. But many of the ones I've been to are really quite peaceful. Last year we lived on one and I had a great time wandering around it in spring, cutting down sleepy, bushy pathways and sitting on benches overhung by enormous trees. At the time I described my estate as a sort of post-communist Butlin's, stuffed with greenery and young families. But now, again in spring, they feel more intimate, like small, self-enclosed towns lined with dozens of trees and little parks. OK, maybe growing up in one is dull or maybe it's not as nice as growing up in the actual countryside, but I wouldn't know and this is my blog so I get the right to conclude from my own impressions. And many communist-era housing estates seem like genuinely lovely places, where de-commodified public space is maintained in common and old and young mix "like in the old days." Although even the best are far from perfect, there's a rare few in Prague that have provided what looks like a convincing answer to the chronic problem of creating decent mass housing.

In the woods. Not sure what they're all looking for.

2. The countryside

It took moving to the Czech Republic to win me over to the countryside. Not that it's unique here but it is well loved. That said, the Czech countryside wins over a lot of places. Poland is as flat as a pancake run over by a big car or something (need to work on those similes). And southern Europe, with its bare rock and stubbly, straw strewn hills, always looks a bit barren to me. By contrast, nature in the Czech Republic was made for adjectives like "lush" and "verdant" (which in the name of decent writing I'll endeavour not to use). And to my surprise it turns out that being in it, as well as just looking at it, can be nice. Czechs also win on attitude to nature. Basically, they love it. Everyone flocks to it at the weekend. The names of trees and plants and sub-species of squirrel can be recited off-hand by the most settled of urbanites.  

Back to nature

There's proper countryside and then there's countryside-in-the-city. Prague is broken up by woody valleys and hills, which you can often walk into just by stepping off your estate and into some trees. Various hiking paths dissect the city. Yes, hiking paths. They're all over the place. Prague is, in essence, a sort of big, semi-rural town. So it surprises me a little when a student shakes their head and says, "I wasn't made for this big, dirty city life," while outside rows of trees wave in the breeze and there are signposts to a village cloaked in miles of lush, verdant woodland. 

Prokopske Udoli. About ten minutes by tram from the centre of Prague.

1. Drinking

I've never seen a fight in Prague. I've seen at least one in every British town I've ever been to, so why not here? Why are Czechs such an apparently peaceable bunch? The answer, predictably, boils down to the drinking culture. Pubs are cheap; people often drink locally; they stay in one place over the course of the night; and at the end of it all they stagger home. Not much opportunity for a fight if there's no detour via a kebab van or a club. 

Now, I don't presume to fully understand Czech drinking culture. Actually, I probably don't understand Czech drinking culture at all. Conversation topics, manners, silent codes of conduct - all are alien to me. However, pubs are the perfect places to speculate about social etiquette. For example, the obsession with beer mats (presumably to protect the tables, which is practical enough). The insistence on table service as a crucial sign of civility (otherwise, I suppose, you're just like McDonald's). The precise manner in which toasts are made and drinks are paid for and tips are given. All of these knit society together in a way that largely dodges the need for pissed up brawling. No wonder Brits on holiday are considered so peculiar.

As it turns out, then, people aren't all exactly the same - some like to lamp each other more than others. Perhaps it's not the most philosophical sounding discovery but I consider this last fact well worth learning.          


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