In Praise of Immigration

I can’t understand all the fuss about immigration. Most of my best friends and family are immigrants. I’m an immigrant myself. Putting aside the subtle distinctions that some immigrants and anti-immigrants make between expats, migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, let’s just think of immigrants as those who settle in another country indefinitely, whatever their purpose, whether in search of opportunity or sanctuary.

immigrants

Let me itemise a few of those who populate my business, social and family life.

I am a British immigrant to the Czech Republic, where I’ve built a business in IT, software and consulting – LLP Group. I’ve been made welcome, despite my lazy failure to learn the local language. Serious cultural mismatches have been few, and the most serious have had to do with the proper making of tea.

My business partner, Barbara, is an immigrant, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants to the United States. I couldn’t have built the business without her. Her husband is an immigrant from Serbia.

My friend and colleague Darina is an immigrant from Slovakia to the Czech Republic (though it’s true these were constituent parts of the same country when she made that fateful journey). I couldn’t have built the business without her, either.

My partner is an immigrant from Moldova, now a British citizen, working in Prague.

My friend Jo, who has built a PR and Marketing business in Prague (JWA) is a British immigrant, and her partner Jan, an immigrant to Britain in the late 1960s, has returned to Prague as one of the few lawyers qualified to practice in both countries.

My friends in Prague are immigrant French, Georgian, Romanian, Slovak, and so on. And I have some local friends too.

My brother is an immigrant to Switzerland where he married a Swiss French musician. He was made to yodel at his wedding, but otherwise has faced no particular indignities.

My partner’s sister Doina is a recent immigrant to the United Kingdom. She qualified as a pharmacist in the summer, sent herself on a crash course in English in Plymouth, walked into a dozen pharmacies in London and landed herself a job inside a week.

Immigrants are hard working, determined, ambitious, tolerant, appreciative. The overwhelming majority enrich the life of the countries they live in, culturally and materially. They are rarely bent on destruction or social benefits, or the slaughtering of animals in the gutter, forced marriage or female circumcision. They have fled or sought new opportunities to avoid such things.

I write this today because I met the best taxi driver in Prague yesterday. He drove me from my office to the airport. Mr Linh (his card doesn’t give his first name) is Vietnamese, and has been driving a taxi and working with tourists in Prague for four or five years. He spoke English perfectly, and (as far as I can tell!) speaks Czech well too. He underbid his rivals on Liftago (the taxi App I always use), bidding 18 CZK instead of 28 CZK per km. He was just around the corner, and with a keen sense of market opportunity he grabbed the chance for a longer than average journey.  His car was clean and he drove with care. No hints of ash or unwashed clothes.

And when he dropped me at the airport he offered me a gift from a basket of Christmas presents he’d wrapped for his customers. I had to take his word for the fact that none was explosive but after thirty years of business travel I am a good judge of taxi drivers. I have never before been given a gift by a taxi drive, assuming you can discount those cards that point you in the direction of striptease.

Mr Linh – +420 702 348 888 – the best taxi driver in Prague.

choc

I wish immigrants the world over a very Happy Christmas. And the rest of you, be glad of us!

Europe on One Euro a Day

My partner and I met the most extraordinary girl in Montenegro. She was standing by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Bright smile, blue hair, massive backpack and thumb in the air. We were driving from the Montenegran coast to Sarajevo in Bosnia & Herzegovina. It was a beautiful drive in early Autumn sunshine, the road rising gradually through the mountains that separate the two countries. And there she was, a completely incongruous figure.

We stopped and she scrambled into the back seat.

‘Thanks, guys,’ she said in an accent that wasn’t local.

‘Where are you from?’ I asked, as one does.

‘Malaysia.’

‘Malaysia, truly Asia,’ I said instinctively, as everyone does who watches Sky News go round and round.

‘I suppose you know you shouldn’t board a vehicle when there are just two men in the front,’ I said, ‘though I think you have nothing to fear from us.’

‘You looked ok to me,’ she said, but I don’t think she’d looked very carefully.

She tells us she’s a freelance script and advertising copywriter based in Kuala Lumpur, working mainly for TV companies and specialising in documentaries and travel shows. Travelling is her passion, she says, with or without the wherewithal. This is her second trip to Europe.

‘I’m travelling for six months on 200 EUR. I’ve used up my 90 days in the Schengen Zone so I’m doing all the others. Only I can’t go to Serbia. Where are you heading to?’

‘Sarajevo,’ we said.

‘OK, that’ll do.’

SHE’S TRAVELLING ON JUST OVER 1 EUR PER DAY!!

She’s clearly a highly-educated successful, middle-class girl, but with a passion for travel that’s got way out of hand. It’s so feverish that she’s swooping on leftovers in McDonald’s, lurking at the back of supermarkets to pounce on items that have expired or passed their best-before date, sleeping on benches, begging space in strangers’ gardens where she can erect her tent, preferring all of this hardship for six months to just one comfortable long weekend in a three-star hotel.

I couldn’t do it. In fact, I could never have done it. It’s quite astonishing that anyone can, or would, if they actually had the option not to. Even the refugees trudging across Europe have more or can get more than she has.

Many of us think wistfully of such adventures. Or we did when we were young. The open road. Chance encounters. Freedom. But most of us thought and think in terms of plentiful food, warm and clean bedrooms, trains, planes, rented cars, clean dry clothes, and, of course, companionship.

So, I admire her pluck. Hers is a mad and dangerous adventure. I also admire the ease with which she accepts generosity. She’s from the minority Christian Chinese community in Malaysia, and her parents are both pastors, but the way she throws herself on the mercy and kindness of strangers is surely more Buddhist. She isn’t wearing saffron robes, but in other respects she’s like one of those apprentice monks doing the traditional year of begging for a living in the streets of Bangkok, bowl outstretched for a handful of rice – only she’s got blue hair, which they never have – and not, I think, because blue clashes with saffron.

Doesn’t quite work….

buddhist beggar

It’s actually hard to accept gifts without guilt and awkwardness. We hate the feeling of  ‘obligation’, even more than we’re glad of the gift we receive.

It’s easier to give, at least if we’re older than 11 or so, and we don’t always expect to get something in return. But it’s far harder to receive without the feeling that some kind of contract has been established that places us under an obligation. Scroungers can do it, of course, but hers isn’t the eyes-averted style of the scrounger, eager to get what he can and scarper. She simply seems to accept that much of the time (though I fear she can’t rely on it all of the time, and she had some hair-raising stories to tell) people will just step forward and help her, and she will gratefully and gracefully accept, without fuss.

To us she seemed like a splendidly worthwhile cause, and in need of protection. She expected nothing from us, asked for nothing, and was quite prepared to fall back on her one Euro a day if she had to.

PTH

We drove her to Sarajevo, where she slept at the home of a lady who worked in a café, and the next morning we drove her to a remote spot on the road between Sarajevo and Mostar. She was heading for a village high in the mountains that she’d heard was the prettiest in the country. After that, probably Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey, and then home for a few months of scriptwriting, before, surely, another mad adventure.

She is delightful company, and she’s a brave, hardy, fascinating, determined, and utterly crazy girl. If you see her by the side of the road, don’t hesitate to pick her up.

Perhaps she’s writing a book about the trip. She said she wasn’t, but I wonder.