Friday, July 15, 2011

Ex-pat Life

I found myself writing in a little bookstore cafe today, Massolit Books in Budapest's Jewish District.  The place has perfect ex-pat appeal.  It is an easy-going, English-language shop, with old furniture, an antique counter, old light fixtures and peeling paint.  The Jewish District is a warren of narrow streets and crumbling buildings, mostly neglected for a hundred years.  Below is a shot of Kazinczy Street, one block over.  This is one of the main streets in the district, though currently torn up for repairs.
Hanging out in the cafe, I got to thinking a little bit about ex-pat life.  I've dabbled in it for years, spending 3-6 months in a number of foreign cities.  I've made local friends and ex-pat friends, and blended into the community, but I've never taken the leap to make it permanent.  Though what is permanent, really?  Most ex-pats do go home eventually, it seems to me.  The pull of one's home country, friends and family is usually too strong to resist forever.  Part of what determines how long an ex-pat stays away is why they are living abroad in the first place.

There are several reasons for a person to live abroad.  First, they might be a student, in which case they are probably living in a foreign country for one year or less.  Second, they may have moved for a job.  In this case, they will stay as long as they like the job, or until the company moves them elsewhere.  These people seem likely to stay in a place 3-5 years, for the most part.

The last category of ex-pat is the one I find most intriguing, and which I technically belong.  These are people that are not living abroad for school or work.  They are there solely by choice.  Many become teachers of English merely to make living abroad possible.  Or they work on their own, like I do.  Or perhaps they have money saved up somehow.  Quite a few American's I have met in Budapest moved here after retirement or divorce, simply because it is so much less expensive to live here than cities in the U.S.  Everyone has their own reasons, though in many cases these reasons overlap.  I am also here because the place is less expensive than home, in part.  But also because there is great atmosphere for a writer, and good cafes to work in.

What intrigues me most, however, is why people choose to live in a place that is so, so foreign from what they are used to?  Obviously it is interesting for an American to be here, in a place like this.  Every little thing becomes an adventure.  Going to the market and trying to figure out what it says on the packages is just one example.  But how much are people drawn to this place, and how much are the pushed away from their place of origin?  How many people are really just running away?  From disappointment, and failure and failed relationships?  In the U.S. a person might feel like their existence is simply dull and uninspired, but put them in a foreign country and suddenly their life has a bit of romance.  Where they were ordinary back at home, suddenly, in a way, they are special.  I know I've felt this myself to some degree, and I've seen it around me in ex-pats I've met for years.  "But what are they running away from?" is always a question I'm a little too afraid to ask.

So we'll end on a positive note.  This week when I was out with friends I met a guy from Santa Cruz who is here just visiting for the week.  He asked me about the ex-pat life, and dreamed a little wistfully of living it himself some day.  It made me realize what a privilege it is even to sample this existence.  It is a dream shared by many but realized by a relative few.  Actually making the leap, packing up your things, boarding that plane, and finding a new place to live and new friends in a city far from home, with a language you don't understand is a challenge too daunting for most.  I for one am going to make the most of it while I'm here and try to enjoy every minute as much as I can.


  1. I find your transatlantic travels quite fascinating, Kenneth. Especially when, to most European people, where you have come from, California, with its sunshine and glamorous connotations is somewhere we all might aspire to visit. However, I do believe that travel broadens the mind and fulfils the philosophy of living life. And living life is what you seem to be doing, Kenneth. So good luck to you - and have fun!

  2. Ha, yes, I do get the question at times from Hungarians wondering why I would come here from there. Just yesterday at the T-Mobile store, the clerk told me somewhat breathlessly that he'd like to move to California some day. But like you said, travel broadens the mind, and besides, the grass is always greener on the other side to some extent too, right? All I know for sure is that I'm enjoying my time here so far!

  3. Well the grass is greener here Kenneth, and that's simply because it won't stop raining. As I type this message to you this evening, I'm sitting in front of a roaring fire. Would you believe it's July!!?? No. Neither would I. Sigh.

  4. Yeah, the rain keeps coming here, too! A roaring fire sounds so nice... :-)