Living in Prague

A long-term expat reflects back on ten years in Prague

David Creighton

Written by David Creighton Published on 22.09.2009 12:40:40 (updated on 22.09.2009) Reading time: 9 minutes

“This little mother has claws,” said Franz Kafka. “We should set her on fire from both sides… Then perhaps we would be free of her.” Kafka was right. I and so many other foreigners living and working in this fascinating, infuriating and beautiful city we call home are firmly in the grip of its claws. Unlike Kafka, I do not think that burning her would be a particularly good idea, and being free of Prague almost sounds like a contradiction in terms. The Golden City has kept me here for almost 10 years. It´s therefore an appropriate time to reflect on this period and how I came to be here.

I moved to Prague in February 2000 from the United Kingdom. I had no job and only a few contacts. It seems a rather odd thing to do, but looking back, I see it as a stage in a longer process that grew out of my very strong curiosity about other places and languages. Years before I arrived in Prague I had a connection with the “faraway country”, as one of my primary school classmates was half-Czech and there were a handful of Czechs living locally. Appropriately enough, 2009 is significant year too because it´s the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which broke out a few months after I finished high school. I studied Czechoslovakia and the other former Warsaw Pact satellite states in one of my final-year classes, and by happy coincidence this subject helped sparked my interest in Central Europe. I followed the Velvet and other revolutions with huge interest, and I learned as much as I could about the Central European countries.

A few years later, I came to Prague, for the first time, in 1993, officially on a university field trip. Somewhat unbelievably, we were asked to choose between Prague and the Ruhr district of Germany. Common sense prevailed in our destination choice and the field trip or rather end of term holiday was, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, life-changing. I was utterly intrigued by the city and the Czech Republic. I also visited Kraków in Poland a few months later, and was fascinated by it too.

After completing a post-graduate degree in building conservation, I started to seriously consider combining my interest in conservation and Central Europe, especially in the Czech Republic or Poland. The idea became more and more appealing. My interest in the region was a bug that I just couldn´t shake off, and I was determined to go to Central Europe to investigate opportunities. I decided that even if it didn´t work I would know that I had tried. Finally, in late 1999, after lots and lots of networking, finishing a job in Britain, two visits to the Czech Republic and Poland earlier that year, and one job offer in Brno that later went pear-shaped, I decided to go to Prague on spec to find work.

I knew that it would take time to find work in my field, but as I wanted to stay in Prague I had to earn a living in the meantime. I therefore thought about the skills I could use. The obvious route was teaching English, but I decided to try and find work editing translations into English and found it. I was also interested in journalism, and started investigating travel writing possibilities. In January 2001 I moved to a translation company, again as an editor, and 18 months later, after acquiring a certain level of Czech, I decided to take the plunge and start off on a freelance basis, mainly as a translator. I liked the idea of working for myself and the flexibility of freelancing. Inevitably the beginning was very tough, and I spent most of my time networking and trying to find business rather than working.

Slowly, however, the networking started paying off, and I began to realize how small the Czech writing/editing/journalism/translation world actually was. It seemed that everybody knew everybody else, including my contacts, and I was beginning to get work through recommendations. I continued networking and the thought of opportunities round the corner and the creativity involved in making them happen and carving out my career niche was exhilarating. It helped me overcome some of the setbacks I encountered during the process.

In 2003 I returned to building conservation by the back door when I translated some material about historic buildings for a conservationist who approached me as a result of the Brno job offer that went pear-shaped. In the same year I moved into journalism when a friend of a friend asked me to write an article for a magazine supplement. I became involved in other projects, including copywriting and a stint as a fixer for a BBC team filming a program about the new EU countries. I am now in full-time employment as an editor of English texts but continue to freelance work as well.

As I look back over the last few years, I have been thinking about what lessons I have learned and how I can advise other people in a similar situation as I have come across a number of people who have relocated to Prague independently. Although there is lots of material available for people moving abroad, it´s aimed more at expats sent abroad by their companies. There is less advice for those setting up independently; I often feel that I have made things up as I go along as there was no “roadmap” to refer to.

On the other hand, I can identify with all of the phases that expats I know have experienced and are described in Tim Nollen´s book Culture Shock: Czech Republic. He describes the stages of adjusting as “euphoria in the first month or two, to a rather sudden low period during the third month or so, to a gradual reawakening to your new country, with a strong sense of confidence and energy.” Nollen notes that these phases can be variable and “can even recur during the stay.”

I experienced the euphoria stage in the early months of 2000, after I arrived. Everything was fresh and novel, and each day felt like a new adventure. I began to settle in and make new friends, and did feel a sense of connection. The Czech that I had started to learn in Britain proved invaluable. I had an interest in other countries and languages, which was one of the reasons I considered living abroad; so living in another culture didn´t feel particularly strange. 

Maybe this was one of the reasons why I experienced the second phase Nollen identifies, “homesickness” less strongly but in a more recurring but fleeting way. I had read his book in preparation for living in Prague, and several weeks after arrival I waited for the homesickness to sink in and thoughts of what on earth I was doing in Prague to hit me. I expected it to be a bit like a scene from one of those cartoons where the hero has just walked off a cliff and is trying to stay in mid-air before crashing to the ground. A few months after I arrived, I inevitably had bad days and times when I felt frustrated, but these were more fleeting, “mini-bouts,” rather than a longer period of homesickness. And as I didn´t have a strong feeling of missing my home culture, but family and friends at home, homesickness wasn´t homesickness in a sense. But I did wish that being able to see friends and family in the UK while I lived in Prague was humanly possible.

Of course, there have been times when living abroad hasn´t felt normal. I have experienced resentment and frustration here, particularly in the first three years of my stay in Prague. These feelings came in short but intense bursts, caused by a number of factors, including the residence permit application process, which was exasperating. I applied for my first permit, in June 2000 when I started a new job. By the time it was ready to be collected, in January 2001, I had already finished the job. To cut a long story short, the complications caused by the delay could have prevented me from returning for to Britain for Christmas that year. I have spent Christmas in Prague since then, and enjoyed them hugely, but that year I wanted to return to Britain. When I had to apply for a new permit because I was working based on a trade license instead of a work permit it took almost two years, numerous trips to notaries and a pointless dawn journey to Vienna for the permit to be issued. This was simply because there were three owners of the flat where I lived and one of them lived in the UK; getting his signature proved somewhat difficult.

As well as bureaucratic hassles, I also was irritated by more trivial things, which I put down to different ways of doing things in a different country, but which I found annoying all the same. I tried to brush off such feelings, not least because I didn´t want to turn into a person who goes abroad and then has the temerity to complain because things are different from home. There were even times when I considered returning to Britain in the early stages of freelancing, when I felt that it was too precarious too continue. It was a test of perseverance, and I was glad that I did stay, but at the time it didn´t seem easy. I tried to put a positive spin on these situations, and remember the old adage “what doesn´t kill you makes you stronger.” It may sound like a platitude, but there is a lot of truth in it.

Conversely, reverse culture shock, which Nollen describes, is very real. Even today, I still experience disorientation when in Britain, especially at Christmas, when past and present and time and place all seem to blur. And just when I begin to think that I am getting used to reverse culture shock and the routine of being back, a new form of disorientation lurks, waiting to ambush me: on a visit to the coast in Britain a few weeks ago, my surroundings felt slightly “foreign” for a few fleeing moments. I often forget that I have gotten thoroughly used to perceiving and experiencing every day things, down to the last detail, through a Czech filter so that when I go back to Britain I find it almost exotic. I find myself being surprised that in cheaper restaurants there the napkins aren´t twisted around cutlery as if the twister´s life depended on it, toasting sausages on twigs isn´t a summer ritual or that World War Three won´t break out if you so much as attempt to open a window in a stuffy bus or train.

I´ve also experienced many bouts of language frustration, especially at the stages when my Czech was beyond the basic stage but wasn´t at the level I wanted it to be at. I am a language enthusiast, but I often felt more like a language orphan: I wasn´t living in an English-speaking environment, but I wasn´t living in Czech either. Even today I find the language learning process frustrating sometimes.

I constantly have to remind myself of the progress I have made with Czech. When I read newspapers in the early days I had to wade through the treacle of declensions and aspect just to get the basic gist of articles. Now it´s so much easier. There are still words and expressions I don´t know, but reading newspapers is no longer the chore it used to be. Interestingly, I have come full circle with languages, as English was one of my best subjects at school and I was told there that I had real linguistic ability. I chose not to study languages further but now I make my living from English and Czech. Learning a language and acquiring new vocabulary is also a good discipline. I also find it extremely enriching as it helps you look at the world around you in a very different way and adds another dimension to your life.

Of course, in itself, living in another country enhances your life, and I like to think that it does broaden the mind. It requires you to take initiative, be creative and do things differently, which to use that dreaded expression, builds character. Overall, it has made me more outgoing and taught me to take a more positive approach. The past 10 years haven´t always been easy, but giving up and leaving the city I now call home would have represented a far bigger loss, both tangible and intangible, than staying.

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