Tender freedoms, visas, lipsticks…

When it comes to immigration debate, there are only two types of people – those who have never feared a border control officer and those who have.

Perhaps it’s a cliche to say that one can no longer imagine Europe with borders but I can and very vividly.

In August 1989, my father took us on a trip to Vienna. The actual journey did not take very long at all – less than an hour in our mustard coloured Zhiguli. The journey from the contemplation of the trip to obtaining the visa?  Four months of statements and proofs that we had the right amount of money allowed by the socialist state and that we weren’t planning to abscond. Not to mention the fact that my father had to sign the dreaded clause: ‘he would lend his services as an informant should the need arise’.

Austria border

His worries did not end there, the border officers were checking our car inside and out as if we were major drug smugglers. It is then I developed that strange mixture of fear and trepidation every time a border is passed – feeling like a criminal though I have not done anything.

Little did we know that a few weeks later the world will watch the ‘Velvet Revolution’ unfold. The border wires snapped open and people were able to walk through freely, without a fear of being shot or hounded by dogs.

My fear of crossing did not stop completely and, rightly so, I was caught smuggling large amount of Hungarian sausages on a bus crossing into Czech Republic – this was after my native Czechoslovakia split to two countries. Even after I emboldened and found my way to international universities’ circles I was still very much aware of the power of border control – I will never forget when my beautiful Moldovan friend was mistaken for a ‘striper’ and held up the bus for full two hours.


My most dreaded memories, however, relate to queuing up for visas at British Embassy in Bratislava. The name of the street where this queue normally formed was ‘Panska’ – very appropriate when you think of it translated as ‘for those of high class’.  I don’t have the stats but it appeared to me that in 1990s only a small percentage of young people successfully obtained the visa. The questioning was tougher if you were a woman – God forbid if you wore a good lipstick. The worst thing you could say was that ‘the purpose of the trip was to visit a male friend’. Looking for work opportunities was equally bad and so was not having enough money to sustain yourself during the planned ‘sightseeing tour’.

I could go on but “why dwell in the past?”, I hear my daughter say. “We have heard it million times how hard you had it when you were growing up. The world has has changed. It’s all open borders now, we can go anywhere we want.”

But can we? Will we? What about our relatives who live abroad if Britain really exits? Will they be able to visit? And what about those people stranded in refugee camps? When will the wires snap for them?

As I see my kids grow up surrounded by the world in turmoil I do not take our freedom for granted. I am becoming certain of 3 things:

1. every generation will revisit the fundamental questions we thought we had cracked a long time ago;

2. we must not always assume that we ‘have learnt’ and things are going to turn out for the better;

3. we are never too far from a ‘tough border control officer’.

Panic? No, just a good old Central European realism.









Steady slippers – rite of passage to socialist womanhood

There’s one thing I ask my relatives to bring every time they visit. You’ll be wrong to think it’s a favourite food ingredient. There’s no shortage of Slovak groceries in West Midlands and I can always get a bag of sweet paprika powder at the local Asian section. My appreciation goes to well made slippers with firm sole and mid heal, fitting snugly around my tiny feet.

For a few years I was muddling through with purchases from the Shoe Zone – remember those high heel slippers with feathers and pom poms? The shopkeeper tells me they don’t stock them any more. “My grannie used to love them slippers”, she smiles, “I remember them from years ago when I was a child”.

Ok, I am getting old and frumpy but I am unwilling to compromise on my slippers. After all, they were a perfect rite of passage into my socialist womanhood.

Yes, I am short. I was about 13 when I realised I wasn’t going to get any taller but my mum thought it was too soon for high heels. And there they were – my mums’ slippers, buying me some grace and dignity in 1985. I remember them maroon beauties as if it was today, tight fitting and slick, with a little peacock detail on the outside. I could walk in them all summer and they did not stretch, I could run around the house doing chords and I never tripped. They did not get smelly or soggy and looked good even when complemented with the iconic socialist joggers called ‘teplaky’ (translated here strangely as ‘warmers’).

But anyone who thinks this had anything to do with vanity would be wrong. There were house chores for girls to do every day – ‘wiping dry the dishes’, organising the cutlery, sweeping the floor or hoovering for the older ones. I remember my best mate Dana could not go out to play a few times because the bedding was not ‘straightened’. Her job was to make sure all the beds were ‘catalogue perfect’ before Mrs Rehakova entered the hallway.

Soon enough, scrubbing potatoes were added and so was the Saturday spring clean, table setting, table clearing, clothes sorting , and clothes hanging, My favourite was coating pork fillets in flour, egg and breadcrumbs – nothing beats a freshly made schnitzel.

All the little things that made a woman required a sturdy but attractive pair of slippers fit for the future socialist super-woman to run around. Visitors often commented on how ‘brisk and clean-loving the girls were’, a good steady pair no doubt helped.

Some habits die hard – and being the super woman definitely lives on in my community long after the socialist ideal has gone. But today I am thinking – all of these months and years, spent in slippers add up. I will start saying no to steady slippers. I will buy a onesie and those ‘ballerinas’ whose only purpose is to keep me warm when stretched on the sofa. I will put out some tweets, update my status on the Linkedin and maybe play a bit of piano. Or I might just finish that short story that is craving a publication. I will make visible what has for long remained hidden and I will get a cleaner once in a while to pick up the crumbs.

And so what if the kids eat a shop bought dumplings every now and then. We certainly won’t be telling the Grannie. It’s time to instigate another ‘rite of passage’ – this time it will be in the slippers of my own choice.









Suitcases, grandmothers and guardian angels.


Our family travels a lot and there are always suitcases ready to pack or unpack somewhere in the house. I used to loath both tasks and it has taken a good few years of CBT to find the prospect of cramming mini shampoos next to winter boots remotely enjoyable. A usual retail therapy – buy everything new and pink – did not help!

With the bags ready – our travels do not take us to any new or exotic places. They are journeys to grannies, cousins and uncles that live in five European countries. What me and my husband craved in our 20s – childless and footless – has become a chord, even though at the end of it we do get to party (at family gatherings, that is!).

If you are an adult, you can fight the routine. Pepper it with a bit of ‘learning experience’ at a renovated castle or a walk down a new beer garden. You can see it as a sort of ‘catharsis’, after all – drinking, arguing and making up with your relatives is a form of therapy. If all fails, you can pretend you are on a holiday, hobbling around the gate in platform shoes from TK-Max with gin and tonic in your hand.

If you’re a child, however, this is all a bit confusing. “Why can’t we just have a normal family”, I hear my children say. Scientists are split about emotional dynamics of transnational families. A lot depends on the socio-economic status. If your parents are seasonal migrants or labourers with lower educational achievement it’s very likely you experience periods of separations. Being looked after by relatives rather than maternal parents with your schooling disrupted may impact on your emotional wellbeing and potential behavioural problems. Communication issues, even once the language is accomplished, are common. Cumulative effects of such discontinuities and disruptions are very well documented in Chinese, Canadian and American literature – I am yet to find a UK research in this area, particularly linked to recent EU migrants.

The research shows that all things considered, you are still better off as an immigrant child in a new environment than a child of a migrant left behind. But even those who come with professional, ‘well off’ parents may suffer an element of ‘identity crisis’ that may or may not go away depending on their copying strategies. This phenomenon has been described as the ‘third culture kids’ (TCK) syndrome, well researched by Pollock and Van Reken. Despite the complexities, authors say, TCKs have a lot to offer to future generations, with their ‘transnational outlook’ and strive for higher educational achievement. Who better placed to deal with some of the modern world global crisis we’re faced with today than those who had lived and seen many different cultures?

Countries like Moldova, Romania, Poland, Slovakia and others from the New EU will have many poorer regions experiencing particularly the more staggered and disrupted migration. Some of you have commented on my previous blog about Moldova, querying the sad stories. You suggested that many emigres have a positive, entrepreneurial outlook. True as that may be, I am in UK public sector and see families on the brink of crisis that are harder to deal with particularly because of the ‘disrupted support networks’. Take a sudden death of a husband in a relationship where you had only each other for support abroad. Imagine a breakdown of a family leading to social services intervention where all proceedings are done through interpreters. Have a think about a child who acts strangely at school because they couldn’t go to their grand-father’s funeral. Stories like these are happening in our neighbourhoods all the time and the people affected go unrecognised as a priority group for therapies. Come to that, we would need more bilingual & multilingual staff in our counselling services in the first place!

Because of my PhD research our daughter spent some time abroad with the grandparents as a toddler. Later on, she integrated well into the UK educational system. Between the ages of 7 and 12, however, she started to cope very badly with what came after the ‘family reunions’. Saying goodbyes and not being able ‘to just pop in’ to your grandma’s suddenly became a huge issue that the Skype could not possibly resolve. My Mum came up with an ingenious solution to the problem – she drew a beautiful image of a guardian angel as a reminder that she is always with her. Now the guardian angel is a screen saver on all the possible gadgets that a teenage girl may need. That worked for her, as well as a good deal of ‘talking about it’ and occasionally ‘crying into her pillow’.

So my advice to the public sector colleagues is this – yes, we do need some creative arts and lots of guardian angels! But we also need teachers, nurses and counsellors able to recognise these patterns as part of the normal child development that can be overcome with the right insight.

If you are aware of any recent UK research in this area please share it. I fully recognise that the topic is by no means exhausted by one article.

Worth to look at:

TCK World – Official Home of Third Culture Kids – http://www.tckworld.com

I CAN – The Children Communication Charity http://www.ican.org.uk

Rasim Somer Dilera, Ayse Avcia, Gilsah Seydaoglub – Emotional and behavioural problems in migrant children

Krista M. Perreira, India J. Ornelas – The Physical and Psychological Well-Being of Immigrant Children

Katherine Milton and Jack E. Watson – Distance Education for Mexican-American Migrant Farmworkers