The expat itch

In what would prove to be a truly pivotal moment, I decided to take Czech. I had three reasons: I loved hockey, I loved Milan Kundera, and they offered it at my university. To this day, those three factors are still the only ways I have of explaining my desire to study such an obscure language, and I still can’t explain the affinity for it that I immediately felt.

Photo: Lani Seelinger

It’s an itch, a dull ache, a constant reminder that, as they say, the grass is always greener on the other side.

People at home often chalk it up to bravery, saying that it must take so much courage to live abroad. It has nothing to do with courage – it has to do with that itch. I have it to thank for a lot, but sometimes more memorable are the times when I find myself cursing it.

As a child, it led me to relish every opportunity to sleep over at a friend’s house; as a teenager, I went to London and started to dream of living abroad. When I was applying to college, I only seriously considered universities that were a flight away from home. But even once I got to one of them, the itch tortured me. When I was at home I wanted to be at school, but at school I would find myself frustrated with one thing or another – the weather, the piles of work, missing my dogs – and I’d want to be at home.

In what would prove to be a truly pivotal moment, I decided to take Czech. I had three reasons: I loved hockey, I loved Milan Kundera, and they offered it at my university. To this day, those three factors are still the only ways I have of explaining my desire to study such an obscure language, and I still can’t explain the affinity for it that I immediately felt. There’s a certain element of chance to it – did it have to be Czech? What if my school had offered Swedish, or Finnish, or Latvian, all other notable hockey countries? What if I hadn’t read The Unbearable Lightness of Being just the year before?

Czech it was, though, and throughout that first year of language study, the itch grew stronger, only this time it was drawing me to a country that I had so far only witnessed in the form of endless declensions, consonant softenings, and irregular verbs. That’s the way it is with love, though, isn’t it – it can be irrational, and all of those imperfections just add to the charm.

I suspect that for each expat driven to wander by that insufferable itch, there is a place that will make it disappear, a place where the grass simply doesn’t need to be any greener. Some people probably never find a place that gives them the relief that they’re ultimately searching for – but I was lucky. When I first arrived in Prague for a summer of study abroad, thoroughly jetlagged and missing my only suitcase, my itch disappeared. Suddenly, I was content. Hardly able to stumble my way through a conversation, living the charmed and vapid life of an American study abroad student, but for once, fully content. Recognizing this contentedness, really feeling that I was exactly where I wanted to be, produced a thrill of happiness that I still feel here several times a week, often brought on by the most mundane things – menus written in Czech handwriting, antique books from the 1960s, those clichéd but still beautiful Prague sunset views.

The six weeks that I had to enjoy this newfound feeling stretched out endlessly at first before inevitably dwindling, leaving me dreading a return to the normalcy of home and school. Afterwards, the itch became something of a gaping wound, and I missed Prague with that same urgency and emptiness that you feel when you miss a loved one—a variety of homesickness, perhaps. During my last two years at school, I threw myself into Czech study and watched webcams of Charles Bridge, all the while scheming about how to get back.

The schemes took various forms—a four-day stop on a European vacation, a year-long fellowship, a three-month internship—but it would be almost five years before I was finally able to move to the Czech Republic indefinitely. Finally, I could make plans, find a job, buy books, because I wouldn’t soon have to pack everything up into two suitcases to move and start the next phase of my life.

For an American expat in the Czech Republic, though, life is inevitably divided up into phases, phases set by the Czech Ministry of the Interior and marked with visa stickers in our passports and long-term residency cards with horrible pictures of us on them. Even when you’re fairly certain that you have everything in order, there is nothing as stressful as a trip to the visa office. Even when you make enough money and you’ve been to all of the requisite strange offices at all of the right opening times and gotten all of the stamps and documents and collected them all and brought them in and had them accepted, there is nothing as stressful as waiting for that letter to come saying that everything’s okay, you’re allowed to stay here for another two years.

After one such cycle, I got back to Prague after a two-week trip home to the States to find a mail slip saying that I had received a letter from the Ministry of the Interior. The next morning, I went to the post office to pick it up. I have never cursed that terrible itch more than the following moment on a sidewalk in Vinohrady, when I opened the envelope to read that the extension to my long-term residency permit had been denied.

I struggled to comprehend the letter’s complicated Czech through tears of anger and frustration, but certain sentences stuck out. They based their decision on a financial technicality, saying that I couldn’t sufficiently prove my income, and it was therefore not in the public interest of the Czech Republic to let me stay. Based on the number of years I had spent here versus in my home country, it wouldn’t be so difficult for me to adjust back to life in America. Then, in the last few sentences at the bottom of the last page, it told me that I could appeal the decision if I wanted to.

I knew that I wanted to, of course, but for a moment I really considered the option of just packing up, ditching my life here, and going home. Going back to a country where any organization could legally hire me to any job, where I could avoid these chilling fingers of bureaucracy and just be a normal citizen whose birth certificate gave me all the rights I needed. I’d been fighting so long to be in a tiny little insignificant country that didn’t even want me here. But—the itch. For whatever reasons, I adore this country. Not appealing was never really on the table.

Over the next few days, I frantically ran around collecting more documents and sent out pleas to my Czech friends and colleagues to please write me a letter of support to go along with the appeal, just in case that might help. Each one of them did, and each one of them asked if there was anything else they could do to help. The icy sting of bureaucracy started to melt away, dulled by the warmth of the people. Their faces, the faces of people who did want me here, quickly replaced the faceless bureaucrats who wanted me gone.

One day that week, I went to lunch with my coworkers. I got there first, and the only table I could find was tucked away at the back of the restaurant. When they got there, someone who had already written one of those letters of support asked me if I was hiding from the foreign police, which forced me to recount the story for the rest of them. Once that was done, they asked me about my trip home, a highlight of which had been having lunch at the White House with a friend who works in the West Wing.

“Wait a second,” said one of my colleagues. “You go home and have lunch at the White House, and then you come back here and they want to kick you out, but you want to stay here? That’s weird.”

I can only agree. It’s that damn itch.

Lani Seelinger

Lani Seelinger

holds a double masters degree in Russian, Central, and East European Studies and Political Science from the University of Glasgow and Corvinus University of Budapest, and she currently works in the Department of Education at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague.