Tuesday, 24 May 2016


Life lived abroad can be lived more vividly, more intensely and more memorably than life lived at home. I think this is especially true of time spent in a country where the language is wholly unfamiliar at first. Handling the new lingo while carrying out every simple task can be daunting if you want it to be. Or you can go the other way and treat it as an endless set of pleasurable challenges, stretching the brain and enabling new ways of thinking about meaning and communication. The latter has been my experience.

I spent just four years living, working and learning in Poland. Almost twenty years have passed since I returned to the UK with mixed feelings and great memories.  A relatively short chunk of my life spent there, then, and a stint which ran its course quite a while ago. But the memories remain vivid, usually recalled with fondness and often with a distinct pang of longing.

I am sometimes surprised by the continued sharpness and brightness of those recollections of that time spent as a foreigner living away from home. After all, I have relatively few photos taken in that period and no electronic archive of anecdotes written at the time. This is all rather hard to imagine, perhaps, for youngsters growing up in this age of online, mobile, social and always-on. But around the time I returned to England, while I did know of the existence of Internet browsing and email, I had used neither myself. I had seen people using mobile phones but had never owned one myself. I had heard of digital cameras but was still committing my memories to 35mm film. So it's all pretty much in the old noggin: a store of remembered pleasures. 

It is not my intention today to write a long piece about those pleasures or about the many ways in which adapting to a foreign country informed my view of myself and my views about the world. But one pleasing element of my Polish stint in the 1990s has been on my mind rather a lot lately, namely the way in which I was able to decide how much I wanted to care about the politics and society of the country in which I was a guest.

The best example of this that I can think of now concerns the Polish Presidential election of 1995, the final round of which was contested by the incumbent Lech Wałęsa and the eventual winner, Aleksander Kwaśniewski. I looked on with interest at the increasing liveliness and rancour of the debates between the candidates themselves, between some of my Polish friends and between the young people to whom it was my task to teach English. I did find myself picking a side to some extent. But I cared far less deeply about that election than I had about previous elections back home in the UK. I was an interested outsider, sure. But still an outsider. A guest. A visitor. Not too much skin in the game.

This is on my mind again now, as is the whole wider business of living away from this sceptr'd isle because of an escape plan being hatched here at this is my england HQ. It's too early to say whether it will work out, and there are good reasons to suppose that it may not, but the intention here is to relocate to an attractive corner of Spain before this year is over. Should it all play out as hoped, we look forward to both the obviously pleasant business of adjusting to better weather and lower costs and to the many tricky little challenges likely to crop up. The idea with regard to the latter is to consider them as brain food, as opportunities to stimulate the ageing grey matter. Along the way, I would expect to experience once again the pleasing business of taking a cool, academic interest in the local politics, free from the hot, helpless anger that grips me pretty much every time I watch the news here at home. But perhaps I can be even more optimistic than that, partly because of what I took from a recent New York Times article about the electoral success of populist, nationalist and far-right neofascist political parties across Europe, an issue brought into sharp focus this week by the closeness of the Austrian Presidential election lost so narrowly by the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer. The graphic below (which is interactive and rather more informative on the page of the article itself) reveals a striking fact: that of the twenty countries examined in the piece, only those on the Iberian peninsula have not seen some level of parliamentary representation for these populist, nationalist and neofascist forces. So maybe that warm corner of Spain is precisely where I should be right now, retreating from events happening further to the north and east. Fingers crossed, then. 

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