Expat Interview with Mary: From Colombia to Czech Republic

Feature photo credit to Cristian Baron @crisbaron

Mary has been living in Brno, Czech Republic since March 2019. Her background is in physics and medical physics; that is, physics applied to medicine. She works as a postdoctoral researcher in cardiovascular magnetic resonance imaging at the International Clinical Research Center of St. Anne’s University Hospital Brno.

Read about Mary’s experiences as a serial expat, the shortcomings of stereotypes, what surprised her about Brno, and the most important thing she’s learned living abroad.

Tell me a little bit about your personal journey.

I was born in Bogotá, Colombia, where I lived most of my life. I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Physics, and because I wanted to have an experience abroad, I moved to Argentina after finishing my studies. There, I completed a Master’s in Medical Physics, and some years after, I received my PhD in Physics. I moved to the Czech Republic in 2019, and currently work as a postdoctoral researcher in Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

This is not your first time as an expat: You’ve also lived in Argentina. What have you taken away from that experience?

One of the first impressions of a person is related to the stereotypes we hear all our lives, and so my first experience in Argentina taught me a lot. Before moving there, some warned me against Argentinian behaviours that could be hurtful, mostly because of their “tendency to arrogance.”  On the other hand, once I arrived, I was politely asked about “narcotraffic, cosmetic surgeries, and war.”

You see, both sides had erroneous impressions, but these ideas persist only because we don’t have the opportunity to get to know each other.

That is the beauty of cultural exchange: You get a direct route to an honest answer from someone immersed in that specific culture. And there is also another detail I’ve identified during my relocations—people tend to ask about what they are most interested in, whether Gabriel García Márquez or Colombian coffee, food, and dance. Of course, generalizations always exist, but I’m glad I grew up in an open-minded family where I learned to accept that I’m just another human being, no more and no less than anyone else.

In general, I loved the process of discovering a new culture. I was lucky I moved to a place full of people from across the country, which meant some splendid culture shock. Of course, comparisons always are there, but the richness of a new living experience such as mine feels infinite.

The cultural discovery was different once I arrived in Brno. When I applied for my current job, I knew nothing about the Czech language. One of my favourite writers is Milan Kundera, and I was happy to learn he was born here. Naturally, I looked up some things before arriving, installed some apps to help me with the basics of the language, and used a lot of help from the Brno Expat Centre, the Centre for Foreigners JMK, and Expats.cz.

Photos by Alexandre Semine

What was it like growing up in Colombia?

I was born in an incredibly beautiful, sparkling country and grew up around people who try to be happy despite the circumstances: People who fight for getting better opportunities and earn a good living. Loving and caring people. People well aware of death. Resilient beings.

I grew up during the most challenging times Colombia faced, just when the narcotraffic and the violence hurt all of us and slowly inured our society. I still remember the news, the massacres and the state of fear people used to feel. Fear became our normal.

I carry lots of memories from that time. It’s part of me, but I was a lucky girl. I was alive. It may sound a little too negative, but the truth is indeed the opposite.

Growing up in Colombia taught me to enjoy life and to never take anything for granted.

This happiness manifests in me through smiles. I smile a lot, and I like making people around me feel positive.

What were your first impressions of Brno?

When I arrived here, the first thing I noticed was that people around me didn’t smile much. I felt like a crazy lady when people acted surprised to see me greeting them. Then, I felt much better when those gazes turned to relief, and sometimes they smiled back.

I had a couple of unpleasant moments here, but I also have had plenty of good experiences, and those are the ones I keep with me. The hardest part was being all alone at the beginning, but I met amazing people who were with me during the adaptation process. I’m a lucky woman.

Finding an apartment was difficult. I visited almost fifteen places, and in the end, I found a beautiful place rented by a wonderful, kind-hearted, one-of-a-kind lady. It was serendipitous.

I started learning Czech one month or so after my arrival and continue doing through to now. Where I work, most people speak Czech, and it’s a significant help for me to listen to their language in a native environment. Czech is a beautiful language, and unravelling its difficulty is an adventure.

While discovering the culture here, I came to appreciate another aspect of life in Brno: the safety. I can’t recall too many places where, as a woman, I could feel safe arriving home late at night or using public transport without having all senses sharpened and being prepared to defend myself. I know that’s not the experience of all women here, but for me, the general feeling is solace.

Another thing that surprised me was the inflation: It was almost non-existent here! After living in Argentina—where there is a lot of currency fluctuation and isn’t useful to prepare a budget because you don’t know if prices will be the same the next month—it was a relief for me.

(Note: In 2018, inflation in Argentina was about 30%, which has increased to 40% in 2020. Covid-19 has plummeted the gross domestic product, or GDP, to 2008 levels. Some Argentines have returned to Europe in an attempt to escape economic uncertainty. Although this is not Mary’s case, she identifies with these anxieties.)

What are your biggest takeaways from the expat experience?

Without a doubt, everything depends on how you face your reality. Being a migrant has a lot of pros and cons, but it also offers countless opportunities and challenges.

It expands your learning zone and that is simply irresistible.

My biggest takeaway as an expat is everything I’ve learned from all the people I’ve met. Each place has brought me valuable friendships and moments I’ll never forget.

Today, I’m a Latina woman immersed in the landscape of Czech Republic. A proud Colombian-Argentinian scientist who loves to live. Tomorrow, we’ll see. The world is, after all, my homeland.

Thanks for reading! Would you like to share your expat story on the blog? Send me a message via the Chlohemian Facebook page.

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