Expert Advice: How to Move to Europe

Fulbright Scholar and immigration historian John McCarthy and his wife and three children relocate to Slovakia.

John McCarthy + Family

When history professor John McCarthy won a Fulbright Scholarship to teach a semester at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, he asked his wife and three school-age children to come with him. McCarthy, who is an expert on immigration, says leaving one’s comfort zone and adapting to a new culture can be a worthwhile experience as well as a memorable adventure. Here are a few tips and insights from the McCarthy family’s travels and discoveries so far.

Learn like an immigrant. 
We told our kids, “You’ve all had kids come to your classes who don’t speak English. Now you are going to know how they feel.” If you’re 7 or 11 or 13, you don’t want to hear that, but we’re hoping when they get older some of it will sink in. Whenever they are adults, they can draw on this experience. If I can survive in Slovakia when I’m an 11-year-old kid, then I can probably handle going to college in Michigan or whatever.

Embrace the differences.
My son likes putting ketchup on everything. The ketchup here is gross; you have to adjust. A little toddler fell off the jungle gym in the playground the other day and his parents just laughed at him while he sat there crying until he dusted himself off and got up. In America, we would run over and hover over him and pick him up and carry him away, but they don’t do that here. And everyone is so quiet when they talk; you’re not supposed to yell. We’re constantly shushing our kids on the tram and the bus.

Keep a thorough record.
My wife, Ann, is on temporary leave from her job as clinical director of the Midwife Center for Birth and Women’s Health. She has been posting our best photos and stories in a blog at mccarthyslovakadventures.com. It’s becoming kind of  a hit among our friends and colleagues.

Familiarity is where you find it.
Bratislava isn’t nearly as big as Vienna, Budapest, or Prague, so it really does have some parallels to Pittsburgh. Plus it’s overcast constantly and very hilly. US Steel is one of the country’s largest employers. Hockey is huge and a lot of people have told me the Penguins are their favorite team. People here know Pittsburgh, because like a third of Slovakia moved there a century ago. We’ve had several people tell us their cousin lives in Pittsburgh.

Look for toeholds.
Both of my boys are playing on a basketball team and my daughter is playing volleyball, and only one of the coaches speaks English. The great thing about sports is you don’t really need to know the language to play.

Soak it all up.
You have to kind of not have a pulse to not appreciate Paris, even as a kid. The Eiffel Tower is one of the most spectacular buildings ever built. It’s just breathtaking. And there are all these old churches; I’m a historian, so I’m hammering home to my kids how amazing it is to be standing in a building that was built in the year 1250. We were in Budapest two weeks ago, where they’re famous for the thermal spa public swimming pools. The water is 100 degrees, no chlorine, 100% natural. All five of us were like, this is awesome.