Living in Prague
Getting There and Staying There
One of the first things that my husband and I realized we had in common when we first met was our desire to leave the U.S. to live and work. So, we made a plan to save up and take off. We worked and saved for two years, all the while consulting numerous resources to figure out where we would go, how we would get there. During that time, I was selected for a scholarship that helped me fund study abroad for one year. As we had narrowed our choices down to central and eastern Europe, the scholarship helped us finalize our decision to make Prague our new home.
Flying to Prague
After an exhaustive search, we found STA Travel (www.statravel.com) to be the best deal for roundtrip airfare (and you must have a roundtrip ticket now to enter the Schengen zone). We knew that we would be in Prague for at least the entire school year, and the flexible, one year Blue ticket that STA offers would allow us to make a return date change for an incredibly low fee of $35 (usually airlines charge $200 to $250 for changes), plus any difference in airfare. Make sure you call an STA agent or visit one of their locations in the US, as the fares listed on their website search are hardly ever up to date. STA provides discounted airfare to students and youth 26 and under, but also to full-time teachers, with the purchase of an ISIC card (available through STA), a card which will also get you loads of other discounts in many cities around the world.
One big way to save on airfare is to book your main transatlantic ticket into London or Dublin, and then buy a ticket into Prague from one of the dozen low budget airlines that service these two cities, such as easyjet.com, smartwings.com, aerlingus.com, ryanair.com or skyeurope.com. Make sure your transatlantic flight lands you in the right airport, since low budget airlines generally fly out of smaller airports, like London-Gatwick or London-Luton. If not, you can always do an airport transfer by bus or public transport for a decent price.
If you have enough energy left after you arrive in Prague, there is no need to spend money on a cab. Several buses leave frequently from outside the airport terminal, including the 119, which is only a 20-minute ride to the one end of metro line A (the green line) in the district of Prague 6.
Prague: Home Away From Home
We arrived in Prague without having a place to live as of yet, but through www.hospitalityclub.org, were able to stay with a wonderful Czech couple, who helped us immeasurably in our first disorienting week. We are still good friends, seeing each other often, and consider them our “Czech parents.”
It took only 4 days of hunting the local expats community website (which is an excellent resource for all your questions and needs), www.expats.cz, to find a perfect flatshare in a calm, well-located neighborhood, just a few minutes by metro into the center. If you want to avoid the noise and tourists in the a more central locations, stay away from flats in Prague 1. If you have the aid of Czech friend during your flat search, you may also want to consult Czech flatshare websites, making your chances of living with a Czech person much greater. It is of course better to start your flat searching before you arrive, so you know what locales will suit you best, according to your job or classes. Also, you can arrange viewing appointments and jump right into it when you land.
Welcome to Schengen
Another commotion caused by the dawn of the New Year was the Czech Republic’s entry into the Schengen zone. Until December 21, 2007, Americans came and went as they pleased without a care. But now the quick day trips every 90 days for a border-crossing stamp to renew a tourist visas are over. And oh how the pain is resounding throughout the expat community—namely the Americans, who unlike the population of British expats, for example, hold the golden ticket: an EU passport.
As part of the Schengen zone (which includes most EU nations besides the U.K. and Switzerland), non-Schengen citizens without a long-term visa can only stay within the Czech Republic for up to 90 days. After that, they must leave not only the Czech Republic but the entire Schengen zone for another 90 days before being allowed to return to the Schengen zone again.
Beginning in early fall of 2007, the expat community of Prague has been awash with rumors, misinformation, and urban legends flying about frightfully with no end in sight. Those fortunate EU passport holders who do not have to deal with this new rule were posting on expats.cz with comments like, “Get over it Americans, at least now you know how it feels to be those who want to go to the U.S.” The U.S. government is currently in the process of easing up on laws for Czechs wanting to enter the U.S., even to the point of needing no visa at all.
Deciding that lawyers would be extremely expensive, we found two visa assistance agencies advertising on the expats website, and tried both. The first one, a Czech agency, did not work out, as the agent was eventually unable how to respond to our questions. The other agency was run by a long time American expat. He calmly helped us organize our many documents and fill in our applications very swiftly and very clearly, easing the stress of the previous months. After just a couple phone calls and only two meetings, we were ready to apply—a feat that had seemed impossible only a few weeks before. His fees are literally half of what other agencies or lawyers will charge you, and having worked in the Czech Republic for almost 10 years as a translator, he knows the right people everywhere. If you don’t want to worry about a thing, you can also hire him to do the whole process for you.
Early in March, to the relief of the expats in Prague, the Czech government issued a statement that allows foreigners currently without a visa a grace period extending until June 30 to submit visa applications ASAP. Originally, the Schengen rule would have made all expats without a visa illegal as of March 21, 90 days after it took effect on December 21.
Employment in Prague
People have been coming to Prague for its very low cost of living relative to fellow EU members in Western Europe. But the Czech Republic’s entry into the Schengen zone—in addition to the gradual rise in the cost of living—has prompted many expats to pick up and move on or to return home. However, the employment opportunities for expats in Prague are actually still very good, particularly because there is a baby boom in this country. You can see it from the number of strollers, even 2-seaters, being pushed around and taking up the entire back part of every tram and metro car. The parks are overflowing with young couples escorting their very young children and meeting with other young couples and their very young children.
Economically, this is a sign that the society feels secure and comfortable to bring their offspring into the world at this time. I recently spoke with a 30-year-old Czech woman—also with two young kids of her own—who is opening a private preschool due to the rapidly growing demand from new parents for quality early education facilities. Of course, this means that there is a growing demand for English teachers, especially those who are experienced in working with young children or have the patience to try.
A baby boom also means a growing need for au pairs, babysitters and tutors, mostly English-speaking, but other languages like French and Dutch are sometimes requested.
But teaching English to the not-so-young is also still highly in demand, and a TEFL certificate, which I do not have, is not always necessary either.
All of these jobs can be found online, such as the popular expats.cz website, and also an up and coming expat community site, www.prague.tv. And once you are in Prague, the people you meet will be great resources for jobs and connections. Keep searching the job websites and ask other teachers if they need to get rid of a few private lessons. Go to expat hangout spots like the Globe Bookstore (www.globebookstore.cz), where you can search a bulletin board that is loaded with want ads for tutors, babysitters, waitresses, etc.
We arrived in the fall of 2006, and at that time, the dollar was doing well, unlike its current plight, and the Czech Republic was not close to converting to the euro. As of January 1, 2008, it seems the go-ahead was given to raise all prices here in the shops, restaurants and pubs, so we are currently having to swallow the slight shock of a 5 to 10 koruna (the Czech currency, also known as crown) increase in everything we purchase, including public transport tickets: a 14 Kc one-way adult ticket now costs 18 Kc, for example. But then again, if you have a job here and are earning in korunas, you are still better off.
University Study in Prague
One semester into my studies at Charles University, my husband—who was teaching English meanwhile—decided to go ahead and finish his degree. He applied at another local university, Anglo American University, located right off of Malostranske Namesti in Prague 1. This school grants bachelor’s and master’s degrees in a variety of subjects, with all courses in English. The school has turned out to be a perfect choice, offering a small student body with low professor to student ratio, which allows for an intimate setting on a campus made up of two adjunct buildings with medieval styled doorways but completely modern and spacious facilities. The application process for direct enrollment was simple enough—he emailed an advisor at the college, expressing interest, and was invited to come in for a meeting to start things off. Scholarships and work-study opportunities are both available.
My one year of study was undertaken at Charles University, in the Arts and Philosophy faculty, located right off the Staromestska metro stop on Line A. If you have Czech fluency or at least a good command of Czech, you can apply to take courses with the other Czech students, with lectures delivered in Czech, and the reason to do this would be because these courses are FREE! But these free classes are only available to students till the age of 27. Even FAMU, the world renowned film school in Prague, offers the same opportunity for masters students who can take the courses in Czech. Of course both schools offer courses in English. Even if you don’t take classes at any of the schools, take a look inside the buildings if you get a chance, and look for bulletin boards where you will find an interesting array of contact information for students interested in language tandems (conversation exchanges), flat shares, tutoring, traveling companions, and other opportunities. Also, the cafeterias and pubs in both schools are great places get really cheap and tasty food and beer. Just put on a back pack and no one will really notice (or care) that you aren’t a student.