In the previous post I mentioned that on a Sunday morning in the center of Prague you will find many more English speakers than Czech speakers. Soup Boy and I were in Kava Kava Kava, and because we ordered in Czech, the waitress told us the network password verbally, rather than writing it down. She left us to our geeky devices, and I wondered aloud about capitalization. A guy nearby said, “You should have just asked the computer guy,” in a louder-than-necessary voice, and handed me a slip of paper with the password written on it.
“Thanks,” I said, and turned back to my work.
“I’m just happy to hear some English,” he said. “I’ve been in Ukraine for seven months.” And so began the Ex-Pat Game. When you meet any traveler who had been abroad for a long time, one of the first questions they will ask you is, “How long have you been here?” In this game you gain status among other Ex-Pats if you have been abroad longer and if you have been to more exotic places. Noticeably lacking, at least among American Ex-Pats, are questions like “How many languages do you know?”, which might indicate someone who is not traveling with an insulating buffer of Americanness, but is rather making an attempt to integrate with the local culture.
This guy became increasingly annoying as he told everyone who would listen about his time in Ukraine. “They’re so fucked up!” he said over and over. “They have no clue at all!” The Englishman who had luckily installed himself at the table between us attempted to engage him. “The thing to do,” he said, “is when you see something that is obvious to you but not to them, think of it as a business opportunity.” I don’t think the Brit realized – or perhaps he did but still felt the need to fight the good fight – was that Ukranus was playing the Ex-Pat Game, and wasn’t really interested in constructive solutions. He was interested in being an expert, a worldly man, a voice of reason in a land of chaos. Someone Who Knows More Than You Do.
The Unimpressed Ex-Pat is also part of the game, and that’s the part I play. It’s easy, because I’m not acting. It really is frightfully easy to move to another country and live. Certainly it is easier for an American with no Czech to move to Prague than for a Czech who knows no English to move to San Diego. I give myself the right to be an unimpressed ex-pat as long as I remain unimpressed with myself as well. Soup Boy and I sat, unaffectedly unimpressed, trying to ignore the guy as he found new people to tell he had been in Ukraine, and how messed up it was there, and about how he was going back in a few days. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Of course Soup Boy and I talked about a lot of Ex-Pat stuff, too. I mean, heck, this place is different, and it’s about the only thing we have in common (OK, not true. We both know that life is mildly ridiculous, and if you can see that, the rest doesn’t matter). If it was the same as everywhere else, we wouldn’t be here. For me, a guy who doesn’t get out much, the differences are less significant, except for the cost of living, but still it’s fun to compare and contrast cultures. Occasionally I was aware of Ukranus listening in, and I realized that, consciously or no, I was still playing the game. I very much wanted him to know that I’d been around a bit as well, so he could stop trying to impress me. I tell myself that I just wanted peace and quiet, but come on, there’s more to it than that.
There is another community of ex-pats here. Poets, musicians, and so on. There are a few of them I have met that I actually like (the ones who do not fit the following description, and there are thankfully several), and at least a couple are even talented, but as much as a long-term ex-pat will put on airs, the long-term ex-pat artiste can make for a long night at the coffee shop. If their conversation measured up their pretensions they would be a fun and challenging crowd to hang out with, but in the end it is just another extension of the Ex-Pat Game. To be fair, some of the gap is because we have very different backgrounds – I am not nearly as well-read or well-filmed as the rest of them. I don’t remember names well. It stops a lot of discussions short. But I sit and listen to them talk, even among themselves, and I swear I am the only one listening to any of it. Often the conversation is not a dialog but a pair of monologues. The whole game is to come up with something you have read that the other has not, and then expound the virtues of that work. “I’ve read Plato!” starts to sound a lot like “I’ve been in Ukraine for seven months!”
I’d rather sit by myself and get something done, thanks.
So a couple days ago I revived my Czech studies, for four reasons. First and foremost, it’s only polite to speak the language of your hosts. Second, it’s interesting. Third, I’m not finding that many people to hang with among the ranks of the English-speaking residents. Not that I hang out much anyway – Big D, one of the least pretentious and most likable people I’ve ever met, must think by now I’m shining him on. Finally, as an Unimpressed Ex-Pat, I can score a lot of points in the Ex-Pat Game with the question, “How is your Czech?”
Oh, yeah, and there are a lot of pretty bartenders who don’t speak English.