I was described recently as ‘a well-known face in the expat community’ and that’s bothering me. Am I an ‘expat’? Is there just one community? From the Latin expatriare, ex (out of, from) and patria (pater/father; paternal; fatherland), the word ‘expatriate’ literally means someone who is living outside their native country. Yep. That’s me. But is this all it means? Is expatriate synonymous with exile or emigrant? My thesaurus says yes, they’re all interchangeable, but I’m not so sure.
The Devil’s Dictionary defines an exile as ‘one who serves his country by residing abroad and yet is not an ambassador’. When I think of exile, I think of it as a form of punishment: being sent away from home and being refused permission to return or, perhaps being threatened by prison or death upon doing so. I think of politicians, governments, whole nations; I think of the Jewish Diaspora, the Polonia, and the Crimean Tartars; I think of Byron, Brodsky, and Beckett. And then, of course, there is the tax exile, a species for which I have neither empathy nor sympathy. I am not and never have been in exile.
When I think of emigrants, I think of those who, primarily for economic reasons, have chosen to leave behind their native land and live elsewhere; in particular, I think of the mass exodus from Ireland to America and Australia in the 1980s, of which I was a part. This trend reversed in the 1990s when Ireland began attracting emigrants from other countries. With the demise of the Celtic Tiger, many immigrants now leaving and returning home. Our young people are once more packing their bags, not because they want to, but because they think that Ireland holds no future for them. As I left a good job with an international company to come to Budapest and work for myself, I don’t qualify as an emigrant.
So I must be an expat! That word is bandied about a lot. I hear it most often as an adjective to describe a pub frequented primarily by those hailing from Britain or the USA, or an event which a posse of native-English speakers are likely to attend. Some non-nationals don’t see themselves as expats. For them, going to an expat pub or event in Budapest is like contemplating a brief interlude in hell. They didn’t move to Budapest to hang out with people they’d cross the road to avoid at home. They’re here to live the life, the language and the love affair they’re having with all things Magyar. But, hey, I am, too! They avoid the Bermuda triangle between Cooks, the Caledonia and Becketts, or the twilight zone of Raday utca and leave such places to those who like their football and their rugby. Those, who while happy enough with life in Budapest, still miss something about home; something they attempt perhaps to recreate by hanging out with those who share a common interest, a common past. I like my rugby, my Gaelic football, and a bit of bacon and colcannon at the Guinness House, so where does that leave me?
Where to draw the line
There’s been a recent flurry of expat events in Budapest – pub quizzes, speech slams, comedy nights, speed dating, poker games, race nights – and what’s interesting about these is that they’re attracting a large number of Hungarians AND expats from non-native-English-speaking countries. (We native-English speakers would do well to remember that we’re only a very small part of the expat community.) These events provide an excellent forum to meet new people, both nationals and non-nationals.
But I seem to be straddling two stools. I will be forever bound to Ireland (is my refusal to sever this umbilical connection what makes me an expat rather than an immigrant?), and will always enjoy a night on the tiles with some expat mates. Yet I feel a strong need to balance this with an exploration of Hungarian culture. I need to find a way to bridge both worlds and not to lose myself in either. And the key to do that particular door is the language.
Language is liberating
Studies tell us that community involvement and volunteerism are keys to living happy, productive lives: giving back to that place in which you live, no matter how temporarily; doing your bit to make the world a better place for all; paying your dues in more ways than simply paying your taxes (although that would be a start!). Being able to speak the language of the country to which you’ve expatriated opens up doors that otherwise remain closed. We can be physically here but not really part of existential Hungary. It’s not easy. I’m on my fourth attempt to learn Hungarian. I keep reminding myself that just as many expats have chosen to live in Hungary, so, too, have many Hungarians chosen to live abroad. And I’ll bet that they all speak English!
First published in the Budapest Times 29 March 2010