I am always in for an expatriate novel and Arthur Phillip’s 2002 book, Prague, was an interesting read. It is set in 1990 in Budapest, Hungary, shortly after the fall of communism. The story centers around a group of young American, Australian, and Canadian expats enjoying life in the beautiful, but the decaying city of Budapest. Arthur Phillips lived in Budapest from 1990-1992 and got the zeitgeist right.
My family and I visited Budapest often between 2008 and 2014 when we lived in Belgrade, Serbia. It was just a three-hour drive north through the flat Vojvodina and Hungarian plains. I loved walking across the bridges over the Danube with the kids. We stayed in apartments or hotels downtown and always had a nice time. Nadia loved the Christmas markets and I loved the thermal hot baths in the winter. One of the best photos I have is of my daughter Ocean reaching over to kiss my cheek in one of the squares surrounded by 19th-century buildings. It reminded me of Milan Kundera’s idea of being able to live moments infinitely. The early morning light, the honest reach of a daughter to a father, and her soft baby hands on my forearm and her breath on my cheek. A moment of pure love and family. I also remember Nadia and me running the Budapest Half Marathon and the exhilaration of running through the streets with 5000 other people.
My experiences in the city are much different than the characters in the novel. I relate however because I was a young expatriate in my 20s once. The novel is named Prague but set in Budapest. Back then, Prague was the “hot city” for expatriates and the belief of people living in Budapest was that Prague was where it is at. I think there is a Prague for everyone, a place with greener pastures. Usually, this turns out not to be true and you make the best of whatever place you are in. Phillips explores the idea of the romantic expatriate city, like Paris in the 1920s. The scenes in the book where one of the characters starts to fall in love with another expat remind me of seeing Nadia and falling in love with her in the late 1990s in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Instead of Budapest, I spent my young expatriate years on the Caribbean coast of Colombia in the port city of Barranquilla (home of Shakira & Sofia Vergara) and my early 30s in Bolivia. Santa Cruz is the most romantic city in the world to me because of our courtship.
Phillips is a beautiful writer and there were some great lines in the book.
“…about to face the disillusionment of boring jobs with glamorous titles…” Emily is one of the characters in the book, fresh out of the University of Nebraska. She is the US Ambassador’s assistant and the job does sound exotic, but actually, for her it was mundane. Getting coffee, giving advice on how to dress, doing errands, etc. That is one thing young teachers need to know when going overseas, is that teaching is teaching, and Monday through Friday, our lives are similar to what they would be in our home countries. Of course, the students are more worldly and serious, and unusual things do come up from time to time, but overall, you are there to teach, not sightsee.
I grew tired of reading about the mistakes of youth. It pained me to follow the immaturity and foibles of the characters. The 20s are a tough age in my opinion as you are trying to figure out what you like, what you can do for a career, and most importantly, find a partner. I think back to how immature I was and the things I thought were cool and important, were not really cool and important. I did however make some good decisions. I am happy I pursued and stayed with a global nomad lifestyle. It changed who I was and I look back at all of my wonderful experiences through the decades abroad. I believe I had more opportunities and escaped the ordinary life educators live domestically. I also made a great decision to marry Nadia. After all these years, I still find her beautiful and fun to be with.
I got off track on the book review, but for those of you who lived abroad in your twenties, this book will remind you of that time.