This summer near Sheringham, I met a friendly couple from Czechia and Slovakia who’d lived in the UK for seven years, latterly Norwich for three years. Katarina and Radek were happy to talk about their experiences. They’ve had good times, but also found aspects of life here frustrating.
They arrived around the time of the 2016 referendum, and it seems like the country has been in political turmoil ever since. However, Radek and Katarina didn’t notice this negatively. “We haven’t thought about Brexit much,” they say.
What made you want to come here?
“I felt a special connection with Britain – the nature and culture – since I was a child,” says Katarina. “I didn’t come here then, but wanted to. I read classic literature and saw old films, which gave me a good impression.” Here, she started a successful holistic therapy business.
By contrast, Radek had no particular expectations. “I worked in IT, and had UK clients. IT skills you can transfer anywhere, but I speak English so I thought the UK would be a good experience.”
“We both felt it was right to try living here,” he reflects.
Did it meet expectations?
They both expected that healthcare and bureaucracy here would be smooth and efficient. The reality was different.
“We were shocked about the quality of life and cost of living,” they agree.
After some time in Birmingham they moved to London, but found it costly. “We had to live in a shared house because renting was so expensive, and it took five weeks to sort out a rental,” says Katarina.
“London was very industrial and intense,” adds Radek. “We wanted to live somewhere more chilled, closer to nature. I had business links in Norwich so we moved there.”
They liked the city and Norfolk. “We love going to the coast to see the sea!” they smile. Perhaps this is because their home countries are landlocked, far from any ocean. However, healthcare wasn’t as efficient as hoped, and official processes like dealing with banks was onerous. They found themselves in a Catch-22 trying to open a bank account.
“You have to provide proof of address with utility bills,” Radek explains, “so you need a permanent residence, but it’s hard to rent somewhere without a bank account in the first place. Like a vicious circle. When I wanted to open a business bank account with a colleague back home it took eight months to set up. That would have been easier in Czechia”
Would you recommend living here to family and friends?
They both pause before answering, perhaps trying to be polite.
“Well, they could come if they want, but it’d be harder than going to another EU country,” replies Radek. “Perhaps if they worked for a big company that could relocate them…”
“Ireland is more interesting to people now – it’s in the EU, and they speak English,” adds Katarina.
They both agree that living costs here are very high, and that EU citizens find their earnings don’t go as far because the pound is weak compared to the euro. Costs in many other European nations are much cheaper, and anyone attracted to London would find it extremely expensive.
Was the UK right to leave the EU?
They both laugh and say they, and friends back home, thought it was a silly idea. “We knew it would be no good for the British, and were surprised that so many voted for it.” Radek answers, “the campaign had too much pretending, not enough transparency.”
“People were too proud,” he adds. “Some older people were made to believe that people coming in were taking their jobs. The EU is not perfect, but most people can now see leaving was a disaster. The UK is having a wake-up call.”
Katarina agrees. “Brexit voters thought the country could somehow manage on its own, but now it’s harder for care homes and farms trying to find workers. People said then, ‘Of course they’ll still come’, but now they’re surprised there are staff shortages.”
As for rejoining, they both think it’d take time, but that their countries wouldn’t necessarily be against it. “Let’s see where we are in five years,” says Radek.
What about the future?
Katarina says that they plan to return home soon, despite gaining pre-settled status here. I ask why. “Finding somewhere bigger to live is cheaper there than the UK. Here you earn similar money, but costs are so high. We’d also like to be near our families.”
And looking back?
Some months later, I got in touch with Katarina and Radek and asked what they missed about the UK.
Radek replied, “We met so many amazing people, and we miss them a lot. Especially in Norfolk, we feel people are more open, friendly and caring. We also appreciate how well UK organisations care about National Parks; it is very inspiring and something we believe our countries should take inspiration from. We are missing the sea and also British nature, not just in Norfolk, but also, for example, in Dartmoor Park or the Scottish Highlands.”
Last thoughts, in their words
“Each country has its own heritage and magic, and we are feeling blessed and privileged for our experience in the UK. We don’t care so much about the government or Brexit; but the country will always have a special place in our hearts. We met there and got married, so for us, it is a huge part of our lives.”
They have happy memories of their years here, but perhaps politically haven’t seen Britain at its best.
European newspapers have written many column inches recently about the UK – a country which once thought highly of itself – committing crazy acts of self-harm. Of course this influences readers on the continent, who see Britain for what it is.
Despite this, most EU nationals who actually live here, like Katarina and Radek, still find something to love in our people, nature and cultural heritage. As they said, “We will enjoy every return when we fly back to the UK. It’s a good country.”