How to be a successful expat

Enjoying Czech beer in Letna Beer Garden, Prague © Ricky Yates

Just over four years ago, on 19th September 2008, Sybille and I arrived in Prague to begin a new chapter in our life together – a Brit and a German living as an expatriate married couple in the Czech Republic. This blog, which I started writing and publishing just over four months later, is as I state in, About me – including two photos, ‘….my attempt to reflect on ministering to English-speakers from a variety of backgrounds and countries, and living as an expat myself in this fascinating city and country’.

As this fourth anniversary of our expatriate existence recently approached, I started reflecting on what makes for living successfully in another country that is not your own. This post is the result of those reflections, written out of our own personal experience and also out of listening to and observing other English-speaking expats who have crossed my path here in Prague these past four years.

As I’ve been reflecting these recent weeks, the words of the well-known ‘Prayer of Serenity’ have come to mind as being an excellent summation of the correct attitude to adopt when seeking to make a success of expat living.

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

Let me explain in greater detail what I mean.

When Czech people get talking to Sybille and I and discover that we are not tourists but actually live here, their next question is nearly always, “Do you like living in the Czech Republic?” Our reply is always very positive, with two exceptions – how far away we are from the sea and our difficulties with the Czech language. But these are two things that we knew about before we ever moved to Prague and are things that we cannot change – we must and do accept them.

It is no use moving to another country and expecting it to be exactly like your own country that you’ve just left. Whilst there is nothing wrong in being proud of where you originate from, you cannot expect your city or country of adoption to replicate everything that you previously enjoyed in your home city and country. Nor can you expect everything you were able to purchase in the shops back in your home country, to be freely available in the shops and supermarkets of your new country of residence.

Friends and family before coming to visit us in Prague, often ask whether there is anything they can bring from the UK that we cannot get here. The reality is that, having Tesco supermarkets and several branches of Marks & Spencer, means most items any Brit might want, can be obtained here without too much difficulty. And to be a successful expat should and does mean learning to live without certain things that you previously always regarded as essential, or finding and accepting something else as a suitable substitute.

Likewise, for better or worse, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King and Starbucks, all have numerous outlets here – there is hardly a lack of familiar globalised fast food and drink. Yet I do hear occasional complaints about the absence of a certain chain of ice cream parlours or the inability to buy ‘dunking chocolate donuts’ from a particular store. If life really is impossible without having ready access to such things, don’t even start considering leaving home in the first place. Learn to accept the things you cannot change.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I do write about all the things I enjoy by living in Prague and the wider Czech Republic. But I also do on occasions, complain about certain things that I don’t like. Seeking to be true to the third line of the Prayer of Serenity, ‘courage to change the things I can’, I do so because they are things that I believe can and should be changed.

One of my regular themes is the many impenetrable and absurd aspects of Czech bureaucracy that I often encounter. Most Czech people I talk with agree with me wholeheartedly about this matter! Associated with this issue, is the way Sybille and I are treated sometimes by the various Czech authorities, simply because we are foreigners.

The Czech Republic has benefited enormously, economically and in many other ways, since it became part of the EU in May 2004. But with the benefits come also responsibilities, one of which is to treat nationals of other EU member states in exactly the same way as their own citizens. So I will continue to highlight occasions when that doesn’t happen because it is something that both needs and has to change.

Of course, there are times when it isn’t worth making a fuss or it is easier to find a way of sidestepping the problem. That is when one really needs, ‘wisdom to know the difference’. And I don’t always get that right. But I am grateful for friends who have offered their wisdom in helping me deal with certain issues so that I hopefully have learned when to challenge and when to just accept that it is something I cannot change.

There are two other issues that are important to recognise and consider if you want to make the expat life a success. The first is the frequency with which you pay return visits to your country of origin. The second is what effort you make as an English-speaker, to learn to speak the language of your adopted country.

In the four years we have lived in the Czech Republic, I have been back to the UK just three times. As far as I am concerned, Prague is my home for the immediate future. When we have holidays, we normally take advantage of our location and further explore the Czech Republic or near neighbouring countries.

Whilst visiting ‘home’ once or possibly twice a year, is not unreasonable, going there nearly every other weekend as I’ve known some Brits do from here in Prague, totally defeats any reason for living and working abroad in the first place. It gives very little opportunity to get to know and settle into the culture and way of life of where you are supposedly living and working. Those who do this, usually return to their home countries on a permanent basis, in a relatively short space of time.

Whilst Sybille and I believe we have made a success of our expat life, the one area where we know we have all but failed is with the Czech language. For to really settle in another country, you do need to be able to speak the language of the people. Whilst we can read a Czech menu, place our order in a bar-restaurant, and see simple signs and understand what they mean, there is no way we can yet have a meaningful conversation in Czech.

There are numerous reasons for our failure in this area. My job is to minister to English-speakers living here. Sybille works on the internet either in English or her native German. Between us, we have the two languages that many Czech people can speak. Older educated Czechs often speak German and when visiting parts of the country nearer the German or Austrian border, German is widely spoken. Most younger educated Czechs speak English and welcome the opportunity to improve it with a native speaker. And Czech is horribly difficult – what other language has four genders and seven cases?

As always, I welcome feedback, especially from other expats or former expats. And please also forgive some of my more vague generalisations in this post – as I originally compiled it over a month ago, there were some specific examples. But I took the wise advice of my best critic & edited them out 🙂

22 comments to How to be a successful expat

  • Well written, Ricky. Your personal experiences and thoughts do match those of the successful expat anywhere.

    • Ricky

      Thank you Michael – As you & Karin have lived outside of your own home country for much longer than I have, I take your comment as a great compliment!

  • Mike in Bohemia

    That all makes sense Ricky. I have been in CZ for 8 years, and my final barrier is the Czech language, which shouldn’t be underestimated. However, I can easily use English or German as you describe too with many people when I reach my Czech language limits.

    I go to the UK once every 3 years, because I am on a Czech salary and have a family to support, but luckily I have lots of friends in Liberec (no expats, only Czechs) and there is plenty to do in CZ.
    Expats on a UK/US salary who only mix with expats don’t really experience Czech life, especially in Prague. They live in a bubble and can’t relate to my life.

    Also, the England I remember is fast disappearing anyway, so I’m not too bothered about visiting home 🙂
    Best wishes Ricky

    • Ricky

      Mike – Many thanks for your endorsement of what I wrote in this post. As you have lived here in the Czech Republic for twice the length of time I have, I do appreciate it. With regard to the Czech language, you have a considerable advantage over me as you are married to a native Czech speaker 🙂

      I agree with you that there is so much to do & see here. And I’m only on about 75% of a UK stipend so the cost of travel to & within the UK is a factor for me too.

      Here in Prague, we do live somewhat within an English-speaking expat bubble as that is where I minister. But we mostly avoid the expat haunts in the city centre & prefer to eat & drink in a small number of local bar-restaurants out in the suburbs where we live & thus experience Czech life.

      • Mike in Bohemia

        Dear Ricky, I have always been impressed how adventurous you and Sybille are in CZ, as described in your CZ blog. I have met so many other long-time expats in Prague who have never even left Prague.
        I notice that you have a keen interest in Czech people, culture, history, sights etc, so I don’t count you two among those living in a bubble at all 🙂
        Best wishes, Mike 🙂

        • Ricky

          Mike – thank you for the compliments. We certainly do try to get outside of Prague & the expat bubble. We were even recently in Liberec which will be another blog post in due course.

  • The Finnish language has no genders and it only has 15 cases (or 18 depending on if you want to count the historical ones that you occasionally need).

    Finnish is an easy language, I have never had any problems speaking it. Hungarian might be slightly difficult because it has 23 cases.

    For me as a native-speaker of a non-Indo-European language is very difficult to understand what makes it so difficult to learn another Indo-European language if you already know one, they all stem from the same root. And if you familiarise yourself with the history of the English language, you see the similarities between it and Slavic languages.

    I apologise in advance for all my spelling mistakes, I was in Berlin and spoke German the whole week, so it takes a while to adjust to other foreign languages. 🙂

    • Ricky

      Hi Johanna – I am assuming your remark that ‘Finnish is an easy language’ was being said somewhat tongue-in-cheek 🙂 As always, the best time to learn a language(s) is as a child. However, my understanding was that Hungarian only had 18 cases, just like Finnish, not 23. And my information did come from an Anglican Bishop no less

      I agree with you that if you know one Indo-European language, it shouldn’t be too difficult to learn another. Sybille says that knowing French already, made learning Spanish relatively easy for her when she went to live in Spain. But Slavic languages are a very different language group. There are some links to German in Czech – Sybille often spots them. But the divide is still quite great.

      No need to apologise about spelling mistakes – there were none. Far better than some native English-speakers I have to say!

  • Very interesting, Ricky and it reflects what I hear from British expats living in France and what I read on French-interest forums. French bureaucracy seems to be almost as arcane and impenetrable as Czech and the French certainly do not treat expats living within their borders exactly like their own citizens, regardless of what the EU regulations say.

    Congratulations on 4 years of expat life in Prague, even if the language has proved to be one mountain too much to climb.

    • Ricky

      Thank you Perpetua – It’s been nice to get several comments endorsing what I wrote in this post. I was aware that the French were quite good at circumventing or quietly ignoring certain aspects of EU regulations, especially those that don’t suit them. Of course, you really need to be fluent in the language of the country, in order to challenge their shortcomings.

  • PS I’m afraid I’m still not getting your replies, though I do receive all later comments and replies. Sigh….

  • Terrific post, Ricky. We started our expat lives within months of each other as I flew to Prague the day after the 2008 election. It was so exciting – both the election results and my new life!

    I think you are wise to let the Czech language go. It takes close to 700 hours to learn a language to intermediate level and Czech is spoken by 10 million people only, who as you point out, often have a second language they would be delighted to hone.

    I believe Czechs are delighted by your appreciation of their country and gentle prods of feedback to keep them improving. Well done!

    • Ricky

      Hi Karen & thank you for your compliments. We haven’t let the Czech language go. This post was just an honest acknowledgement that we haven’t made the progress with the language that we wish & think we should have made by now. Yes – only 10 million Czechs speak the language, together with a further 5 million Slovaks who also understand it. But to be a completely successful expat does include being able to converse in the language of your new country of residence.

      My blog does seem to be appreciated by English-speaking Czechs though a few say that sometimes I am a little too critical of their bureaucracy 🙂

  • Ok, maybe Hungarians have dropped a few cases since I was at school. 🙂 I remember hearing the number 23 from a Fenno-Ugrist Kirsti Siitonen at Turku University in year 1993. By skimming through the Wikipedia article (the Finnish one) I learned that the number of cases in Hungarian is debatable, maximum being as high as 30. The distinction between case and derivative is not always clear.

    This is actually the reason why the Finnish language has 3 debatable cases too, in the Modern Finnish they can be counted as derivatives, sometimes they are called “archaic cases”.

    Most likely the normative grammar that text books represent simplifies things a lot. I know it happens with the books that teach Finnish for foreigners. I have a similar experience with my Czech teacher who refused to give me the whole chart of Czech conjugations. She didn’t want to scare or depress me with too much information.

    I found that both annoying and funny because for me learning a language is a process I enter self-evidently. When I need a language, I start working on it and I definitely do want all the information. And it takes a bit more to scare the s-it out of me than the Czech grammar. 🙂

    • Ricky

      Hi again Johanna – I’m sure you’re right in saying that the discrepancy regarding the number of cases in Hungarian is probably explained by whether they are deemed cases, (archaic or otherwise), or derivatives. However, when writing or talking about the grammatical difficulties of learning various languages, I often refer people to that blog post by Bishop Alan about Hungarian, which both Sybille & I found hilarious when we first read it. However, I’ll pass no further comment on your final paragraph 😉

  • It makes me genuinely happy that you haven’t let the Czech language go. Belittling comments about languages spoken only by 10 or 5 million people are always mind-boggling to me. 5 million speakers for one language is actually quite a lot if you look at languages from a global perspective. There are very small languages with only a few thousand speakers and yet, in that environment knowing the small language is essential.

    Also, it is a known fact that if you learn one language, it opens the door to others, it also opens the door to people’s lives and hearts. Even a few words help a lot. You don’t need to be perfect, people appreciate your effort.

    I never expect a foreigner to know my language perfectly, not even well, but I do expect them to say the few key words in Finnish, if they are to stay here a bit longer time. And if I see that the person is really trying to learn more, I give them credit! 🙂

    • Ricky

      Johanna – I concur with you entirely with you about not belittling a language because it’s only spoken by a relatively small number of people. Of course, what is ‘relatively small’ does depend on what you are comparing it with. Knowing, or a least having an appreciation of a local language, is important. Welsh is only spoken by just over 600,000 people. But when I lived for three years in a Welsh-speaking area of Wales, I did make an effort to get my tongue around the language, in particular, learning the rules of pronunciation meaning that I still can sing a hymn in Cymraeg.

  • “The Prayer for Serenity” is one of my favorites! It definitely does apply well to those trying to either simply to understand or become a part of another culture. There will always be irksome differences that come up between different nationalities. I find it fascinating how Brits and Yanks often rub each other the wrong way sometimes. But in the end, that prayer really does sum up the position we have to take when interacting with those who have significant differences in cultural background from us.

    Plus, at least we all know and love Kentucky Fried Chicken! Otherwise, diplomatic relations would have deteriorated long ago! LOL! 😉

    • Ricky

      I concur entirely with your first paragraph other than I’d spell ‘favorite’ as ‘favourite’ 🙂 But I can very happily live without KFC. The last time I ate some, I broke part of a tooth!

  • Ah, you just don’t seem to appreciate the beauty of simplicity when it comes to American spelling choices! 😉 But I will admit to having indulged in the fancy British spelling for romantic intros of historical fiction novels. “This conflict of hearts and minds would prove to be the ultimate test of their honour…”

    So have you dubbed your experience at KFC “Col. Parker’s Revenge”? Furthermore, did a sliver of bone do you in, or was it a piece of burnt something-or-other? I think you should buck up and give it another go. Or you could to Chick-Fil-A as a wholesome alternative. But I suppose they’d call it Czech-Fil-A in your area, wouldn’t they….? 😉


    • Ricky

      Hi Pearl – Thank you for your light-hearted humour/humor. The bad KFC experience was at least a couple of years ago & I now can’t remember the exact cause of my resultant dental problem. And Chick-Fil-A has not yet arrived in either the Czech Republic nor in the ‘Chick Republic’ 🙂