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  Expatriate Writing Contest  2009 3rd Place Winner
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2009 Expatriate Writing Contest 3rd Place Winner

Moving, Living, and Working in the Czech Republic

Starting a New Way of Life

View from Author's Study in the Czech Republic
View from my study in our home in the village of Buková, Czech Republic

The view from my study is one of golden fields, with the occasional deer out grazing, a lake in the foreground, forests and mountains in the distance. At times I have to pinch myself to realize that it is not all merely a dream.

Making the Move

Six years ago, my husband and I emigrated to the Czech Republic, where our best friends had settled and where, during a visit to them, we fell in love with the land. The peace, security and lack of crime—sadly absent in our homeland—were what we craved most of all.

According to our specifications, these friends subsequently purchased a house on our behalf. So, without ever having set eyes on our new home apart from in photographs, and knowing only two people in the entire country, we sold up and moved from South Africa to the Czech Republic on March 1, 2002.

Due to the language barrier, the only employment open to us was English teaching. To this end, before emigrating, we obtained TEFL certificates and six-month work visas. 

We opted to take all our furniture, possessions, and pets with us. Thus our Labrador and cat unwittingly became immigrants, a process involving reams of paperwork, although fortunately there is no quarantine for animals imported into the Czech Republic. The cost of flying our two pets was slightly more than the airfare of one adult.

Our worldly goods arrived by container on our new doorstep six weeks after us. Having our pets and lifetime possessions was a major factor in making us feel at home in strange, new surroundings, greatly speeding up the transition process.

Our New Home

Our story-book wooden chalet is situated in Buková, a few miles from the Austrian border, a tiny, sleepy village where time has stood still, the only commercial ventures being a hospoda (pub) and potraviny (grocery store).

Writer's chalet in Bukova
Writer's wooden chalet home in Buková.

Coffee, Beer, and Social Integration

We soon discovered the villagers were highly suspicious of “foreigners,” peering at us from behind lace curtains as we passed by. Our next-door neighbor, on the contrary, is a friendly Czech lady who lives alone with her poodle. Soon after our arrival, Jana invited us by vigorous sign language across the fence, for kava (coffee) which, in Czech, as we soon learnt, is synonymous for a feast.  

As she speaks only Czech and Russian, our sole communication is a combination of “Czinglish” and sign language. Through her tolerance and generosity, our neighbor offers living testimony to the fact that there are no language barriers to friendship.  

Jana urged us to visit the local hospoda as soon as possible. Even if it consists of only ten houses, the tiniest village offers at least one hospoda, with Czech pivo (beer) being acclaimed the best in the world. Undoubtedly in communist times, the hospoda brought much comfort to an oppressed nation, when freedoms taken for granted today were forbidden.

Adjoining the potraviny is a square, brightly lit, characterless room. This is The Hospoda. Our first entrance into the smoke-filled pub caused a major sensation. There was a deathly hush as all eyes turned in our direction to stare, the locals never before having witnessed "foreigners" within their hallowed walls. Smiling weakly and mumbling, “Dobrý den” (“Good day”), we hastily seated ourselves at the nearest table.   

Fortunately, a few moments later, Jana arrived, coming directly over to join us. Her obvious acceptance of us meant a grudging acceptance of our presence by the locals, who proceeded with their chatter, albeit casting curious glances over their beer mugs in our direction throughout the evening. It took a long time to be accepted, but we are now regarded as permanent, if slightly odd, fixtures, smiled at and greeted when we pass by.

Cyclists at a local hospoda.
Cyclists taking a lunch break at a Czech local hospoda (pub).

Teaching in South Bohemia

Despite my lack of experience, I was instantly employed by a private language school in České Budĕjovice, capital of South Bohemia, and thrown into the deep end of a demanding job. Through teaching, I met kindly Czechs from every walk of life, all eager to learn English. 

Teaching, despite being nerve-wracking, provided an insight into the Czech mentality. I got to know and admire this hardy, tolerant nation in a way I that would never have been possible without the personal contact of the classroom. Czechs are naturally inhibited with strangers, making the task of teaching adults doubly difficult. However, once I established common bonds with individuals, teaching became a lot easier.

I also met English-speaking teachers from all over the globe who were an invaluable source of information and encouragement in those early difficult days and with some of whom I have formed lasting friendships. Later, I expanded my work base by teaching private students at home, proof-reading and writing for English magazines.

As a non-EU citizen wishing to reside and work permanently here, I was obliged to go through the mill of the Foreign Police, entailing an incredible amount of red tape, frustration, blood, sweat and tears. As each 6-month term of my visa drew to a close, I had to appear before the Foreign Police (who speak no foreign tongues), complete numerous doklady (documents), drive to the Czech Embassy in Slovakia to hand in my application, which would then be sent back to České Budĕjovice for approval—only to be returned to Slovakia to have the pleasure of another 170-mile trip to collect it. Years later, when my husband obtained British citizenship, I was granted 10-year permanent residence, greatly simplifying life.

Driving in the Czech Republic is a hazardous venture. In the Communist era, the range of cars was strictly limited. Today, people have the means and opportunity to buy fast, powerful vehicles which they drive kamikaze-like at high speed on inadequate narrow roads, full of dangerous unmarked bends. Cyclists who rule the road are another driving hazard, while pedestrians have the ultimate right of way.

The Character of the Czech People

The land breeds tough people. In 2006, Europe experienced one of the most severe winters in decades. Shoveling snow was a new exercise for immigrants from Africa. As I was out with my shovel, feeling particularly sorry for myself, an old lady in her eighties walked briskly past me, carrying a large shopping bag of groceries and pushing her heavy, antique, gearless bicycle uphill in deep snow. She told me she had been shopping in the next village, 2 miles away. At that moment, I decided that if, at her age, she was able to go shopping on her bicycle in a blizzard, I too could survive.

Cars buried in snow in Czech village street.
Cars buried in snow in a Czech village street .

Most admirable about the Czechs is their close-knit family life, very often with three generations living in apparent harmony under one roof. Weekends, which begin early on Friday afternoons, are strictly for relaxation. Many city-dwellers own country cottages (chaty) as weekend retreats. Families are seen out cycling or hiking together and participating in winter sports. New mothers are granted four years’ paid maternity leave, resulting in children who are well cared-for and strictly disciplined.

As keen cyclists, we were thrilled to find our home in idyllic terrain with shady cycle paths amidst forests and lakes interspersed by quaint villages. It is an endless source of pleasure to discover a new route, yet another lake with nesting swans, a virgin forest, an unexplored village or a different pub—with sometimes even a different menu.

Czech Cuisine

Czech cuisine is limited and meat-based, Gulaš and Knedliky (dumplings) being perennial favorites. In the long summer evenings, we cycle the three miles to Žumberk, a medieval walled village, to dine in the garden of the popular pub where waiters now accept me as the strange one who does not eat meat and asks for everything: “bez maso” (“without meat”). This is indeed a risky country for the vegetarian, where even the innocuous croissant contains meat.

The Challenges and the Rewards

Relocating to the Czech Republic has been the most challenging, inspiring, exhausting and rejuvenating experience of my life. The Czech language (which I despair of ever mastering) is the major hurdle. However, my knowledge of German is a huge asset, especially when dealing with bureaucracy. 

The harsh climatic conditions, as compared to the temperate Indian Ocean climate I grew up in, were a shock to the system. However, I soon learnt the truism: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes!”

Finally, my new teaching career posed extreme mental challenges.

Witnessing how the Czech nation overcame the destructive floods of 2002 was inspirational. I am not sure where the secret lies to the dauntless spirit of this determined, hardy nation. Could it be in the quantities of the world's best beer consumed here, the tranquility of the countryside, the hills and valleys, the streams and unspoiled forests, the medieval villages, majestic castles and magnificent cities such as Prague? Or could it perhaps be in the hardships so stoically borne under Communism?

I have yet to discover the answer, but find myself, at the age of 63, proud to have been accepted as part of this unique nation.

For More Information

Online Resources:

www.expats.cz. A remarkably comprehensive website which has been my primary source of information on many topics, as well as a source of employment.

www.expats.cz/directory.  In the Expats Business Directory, are listings of employment offers and vacancies, real estate, accommodation, items for sale, event listings, education, health and medical, parents and children, visa and relocation, expat life Q&A, finance, travel & tourism—in fact every aspect of expatriate living in the Czech Republic at your fingertips. 

There is also the possibility of a free Business Listing on www.expats.cz, should you wish to advertise your services to a wide audience. I have obtained most of my proof-reading and freelance writing work through this site.

Expats.cz also publishes an annual updated booklet: “Survival Guide” which is free of charge and may be ordered online from the above website. This 160-page guide is a gold mine of information for expatriates, covering topics such as relocation, education, business, employment, accommodation, how to use the Post Office, obtain a mobile phone contract and much more.

There are numerous employment recruitment agencies in Prague, many offering free services—one of these is Grafton Recruitment s.r.o. www.grafton.cz, info@grafton.cz.

www.eslbase.com/schools/czech  A complete list of all the English language schools in the country—useful for sending out employment inquiries before arriving in the country.

www.bestteflcourse.com. TEFL International—for TEFL courses and jobs worldwide.

www.praguepost.com. The Prague Post online – Prague’s English language newspaper, with current news items, classified ads with employment vacancies, accommodation etc.  One may subscribe for a free weekly online newspaper to be sent to your email address.

www.lifestylesmagazine.eu. This is an upscale English language magazine, published in Prague. The online version is available in Czech. The website discusses international travel items, food and wine, real estate, sports, arts and culture, health, country, and city living, fashion, education – in sum, a good site with which to update yourself on the country before arrival.

www.ectaco.co.uk/English-Czech-Dictionary. A free online dictionary.

www.mapy.cz. Offers detailed maps of the Czech Republic.

www.czech.cz. The official tourism site with a wealth of information on getting to know the Czech Republic, culture and heritage, business, economy,  tourism and sport, work, and study.

www.jiznicechy.org.cz. The official South Bohemian tourism website, detailing all places of interest in South Bohemia.

www.mvcr.cz. The Ministry of the Interior official website with extensive information and advice for foreigners on all aspects of living in the Czech Republic.

Publications:

Guide to Living in the Czech Republic, by Jana Konečná, published by Computer Press, Praha—a small practical pocket guide filled with useful facts and practical information for the expatriate.

The Czechs in a NutshellA User’s Manual for Foreigners by Terje B. Englund and published by Baset. The author, a Norwegian journalist based in Prague, may be contacted at  czechnutshells@centrum.cz. This is a  hilarious and accurate insight into the character and culture of the Czech nation—influenced by diverse cultures which has created a society  “in some respects tolerant and rich, and in others, a bit less admirable and generous.”  Essential reading if you are to understand the Czechs better.

Teach Yourself Czech—Language 30. Phrase Dictionary and Study Guide. This “Crash Course” is an ideal way to pick up some essential vocabulary and phrases. It is combined with an audio cassette by Audio Word Language 30 and published by All Language / 30 components U.S.A.

Czech Step by Step by Lida Holá published by Fragment, Prague, 2000.

Pearl Harris, whose ancestors hail from Britain, was born in 1945 in South Africa where she spent most of her life before emigrating to the Czech Republic in 2002. Pearl is a travel addict and has no intention of ever giving up this habit. She has traveled widely in Europe, Africa, the U.S.A. and the U.K.  Besides travel, her passions are writing, photography, reading and animals.

Pearl is a Diagnostic Radiographer, with a B.A. in English and Linguistics, post-graduate Diploma in Translation and TEFL certificate. Now residing permanently in the Czech Republic, she freelances as an EFL teacher, proofreader and travel writer. Her articles have appeared on www.TimeTravel-Britain.com , Diversions (published in South Africa) and Lifestyles and Bridge magazines (published in Prague).

Pearl’s first book, From Africa to Buková, has recently been published and is available from: www.createspace.com or Amazon.com. 

From Africa to Bukova