3 Immediate First Impressions as an Expat

1) From the moment I stepped outside the airport in Prague, I felt at home. It was my first time in Europe, and most of my friends and family back home thought I was crazy for not only deciding to move to Europe but to Prague, a lesser known city at least to the more inexperienced traveler. Riding into the city from the airport, the buildings and landscape felt familiar, comfortable.

I do recommend having someone pick you up when first alighting in a new country. I was fortunate to have my American friend D, who’d moved to Prague previously and had recently married a lovely Czech woman. There is a taxi company with exclusive airport service into the city that is regulated at 500czk or about $20. There is also a bus service for 32czk or about $1.5, considerably less money and a considerably longer trip. As I write this, the city is extending the existing metro service directly to the airport, but it won’t be finished for another 9 years.

2) My second immediate impression, which popped my bubble of comfort, was my first visit to a deli for a bite to eat. I had absolutely no idea what anything said. Yes it was the Roman alphabet, but I’d never seen so many consonants together – some words barely had a vowel. And then the variety of accents…! Czech is a language that even the natives agree to be one of the most difficult to learn, at least in Europe. I purchased a Czech/English phrase book written for tourists during my 5 hour layover in Heathrow. I had also purchased Czech language lessons on cds while still in the US and had advanced halfway through (though I can’t say I can recommend the Pimsleur Method – the phrase book was much more helpful for getting acclimated in the first weeks and months). Luckily the deli had big pictures of the sandwiches. I pointed at something that turned out to be a nice tuna salad. Many of the store clerks speak at least enough English to conduct a transaction.

3) And transactions led me to my third immediate impression, which was the currency difference. I’d traveled to Mexico and Canada and had experienced the temporary delight of what seemed a bit like Monopoly money to a tourist. But in Prague I was not a tourist nor a traveler but intended on being a resident. So I needed to get a handle on my new country currency.

In the four years I’ve live here, the Czech koruna to US dollar exchange rate hovers around 20czk to $1. In 2008 there were grumblings among older expats who arrived in the 90’s about the devaluing dollar and how everything was so much cheaper before. I chose to ignore them because to me it was all still a marvel and noticeably cheaper than what I was used to in the States. For example, the average salary of an expat working as an English teacher or in a call centre is around $1,000 and monthly rent and utilities for a shared flat is between $300 – $400.

I’ve now adapted to thinking mostly in korunas, but upon first arrival it was a math puzzle – and math is definitely not my forte. Was 100czk too much to pay for a bath towel? Or not enough? (It’s actually around $5.)

I don’t regret my decision to move here one bit. I’m still struggling with the language and I continue to enjoy the adventure. I had to explain to some friends in the US that an expat is not someone who has given up his/her citizenship of their homeland. Although I have adopted this country, if not legally than in my heart. I found the following excerpt from my journal, written just days after I arrived in Prague. It pretty much still sums up how I feel (except for the directions part):

“Mostly I get up each day, ask for directions, then place one foot in front of the other. If there’s a particular reason for me being here, I haven’t figured it out yet. Suffice that I’m happy, tho a bit in wonder, and things keep falling into place!”