Updated: Oct 18, 2019
We’d toyed with the idea of relocating to the Czech Republic for years. Ever since we sold our seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time holiday house in Křnice, a village near Broumov. I think that was in 2001. On 23 June 2016, the toying was over. We were emigrating.
Every couple of years we’d go through phases of scouring property sites in a starry-eyed and aimless manner, marvelling at the relatively low prices, and at the same time wondering how some of these wrecks and hovels – the only property band we could possibly afford – could ever be turned into homes.
My congenital inability to assimilate a second language always loomed large at the back of my mind, even as I nodded and feigned interest in Magda’s latest property discoveries. A more honest version of me would have confessed that, at heart, I had no will to relocate.
That all changed on 23 June 2016, at 4.14 in the morning. At the behest of my bladder, victim of a late glass of Buxton sparkling water the previous evening, I was awake at 4.10. Rather than have a quick wee and then return to blissfully ignorant slumber, I arranged the pillows comfortably as a head-rest and flicked on the mobile. The BBC’s all-night EU referendum programme lit up the screen, and I calmly looked to see exactly how far ahead the ‘Remain in the EU’ campaign was. This would give a decent impression of the final victory figures, due in around 7am.
My body lurched, and a cold, tingling skin-waves rippled up and down me. I checked the onscreen figures again, panic already making my heart race. Four anxious minutes later, the commentators were asserting that this would be pretty much the shape of the final result, as the various touchpoint voting areas had not gone in a direction that would suggest any hope for the Remain camp.
My tear ducts trembled, but they didn’t overflow. I was too pissed off. I glanced across at the sleeping Magda, and mumbled “It’s time for you to go home”. It sounded melodramatic. It also sounded exciting. Maybe we'd just been biding time waiting for the excuse. Time-check again – 4.14, ticking to 4.15 as I looked. That was the moment when all those years of vacillating about emigration translated into something active.
We were staying in the EU, by leaving a country that had taken the ancient racist baton and voted against immigration. People had been lied to, statistics had been sidelined, voices of reason hushed, all the rest of it. But at the heart was this: a nation of immigrants (with a short lull between the 13th and 18th centuries, I concede) had decided that immigrants were to blame for everything. Anything. It didn’t matter what. No gripping of lapels and angry shouts of “It’s the economy, stupid!” were going to make any difference to their opinions on Europe. It was the place foreigners came from, and that was enough. Yes, yes, I know there are cogent arguments about isolated and neglected communities voting against the establishment that allowed them to languish in post-industrial wastelands of Stoke-on-Trent, Grimsby and other Leave-voting heartlands. But bollocks to all that. Sometimes you need to see in black and white in order to choose a way forward. (And perhaps that's exactly what those communities I've just said 'bollocks' to had done in the Referendum).
So, at 4.14, ticking over symbolically into 4.15 and the future, we took the first step on the road to the Czech Republic. I make it sound clear-cut, which of course it wasn’t. I toyed with the idea of Scotland, on the basis that they were going to break away from the UK and eventually rejoin the EU. I contacted my almost-cousin Allie in Canada to check out our prospects there. But there was never much doubt about our destination.
It must sound as if I really love the EU. I don’t. It’s a great big money-addled monster that mercilessly rips up weaker parts of its political bulk such as Greece. It’s a capitalist machine at odds with my wilfully naïve neo-Green-socialist ideals. But it’s a necessary part of post-World War. It’s so wide-ranging that its politics inevitably get bogged down somewhere in the centre, in the safe zone. And that’s good. It prevents the mob rule racist ethic that had just seen UK voters explode the myth – one of the oldest – of British decency and tolerance. We don’t need dreams of empire and Rule Britannia. We need the EU. It’s a post-colonial no-brainer, warts and all.
But now for the tricky part. Language. That congenital inability to remember any non-English words for more than 24 hours was a challenge next to which the uprooting of life, love and livelihood would be a great big slice of the yummiest bábovka in the cake shop.
Magda appeared bleary-eyed at 6.45. I was on my third cup of tea and second breakfast. Disbelief, anger, sorrow, in that order. Textbook stuff. One dog-walk later, she was back in Czech property-finding mode, with the focus and tireless pursuit of a hungry great white shark. Or perhaps, like me, a black rat (Rattus rattus) leaving the captain to his sinking ship and seeing what bits of wreckage seemed seaworthy.
Many years ago a Czech friend of ours at Oxford University said: “I’m going home. I’m fed up with being foreign.” This was now Magda’s unspoken mantra (an odd sort of mantra, I admit). I’d never done ‘foreign’, but it was surely my turn after her 18-year exile. The kids are happy with the thought of being Anglo/Irish-Czech. Genetically they’re about 70% in the EU post-Brexit. Jan speaks rudimentary Czech already; but Theo has inherited that congenital condition.
Language. That’s where the main challenge lies.