Life Beyond Prague
Living and Working in a Czech Republic Town
Prague is filled year-round by tourists, travelers, and those seeking employment and adventure far from home. A cosmopolitan, convenient place, it is possible to live there without speaking a word of Czech. And for those
who might like the idea of hanging out in such a glamorous foreign environ without many of the challenges that usually come with living abroad, life in this captivating city in which Western goods, books, music, entertainment, and company are
easy to come by may be ideal.
But after exploring several job opportunities in the Czech Republic online, I accepted a position teaching English as a foreign language in Nymburk, a quaint historic town of 15,000. I was coming from Turkey, where I had
been teaching in the massive and madly busy capital Ankara, a metropolis of 16 million. My goal was to live and work in a much smaller town, marginally further west, where I would have to make a greater effort to adapt and become immersed in
local culture and community.
Nymburk, a medieval town on the Elbe River, lies in central Bohemia about an hour east of Prague. Historically, its location gave it strategic importance in the country’s railway infrastructure. As a result, it is
still easy to travel just about anywhere in the country from Nymburk’s nadrazy (railway station). Nymburk is also the birthplace and setting of many tales by the famous Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, including Postriziny, a story of the local
brewery that, incidentally, still makes excellent beer. Not many people in Nymburk speak English. There are three large grocery stores, many little shops and restaurants, a cinema, an impressive sports complex, and plenty of pubs; but it remains
a modest, quiet place.
The small school where I worked is owned by a hard-working Czech couple. Most language teachers are locals, and meetings are held in Czech. The director is a long-term expatriate Brit who speaks Czech like a native and valiantly
mediates between the ambitious owners, who are still learning personnel management Western-style, and the handful of native English speaker employees trying to adjust to a work environment still tinged with traces left by decades of Soviet rule.
One of these influences is a complete backlash to Communist economic ideals. People are out to make money fast. Language schools are businesses, and many students learn English to ensure competitiveness in the cut-throat
world of international commerce. To Western teachers this focus on money may seem excessive, but considering that demand for language teachers springs from this “rampant” capitalism, it doesn’t seem fair to judge the phenomenon
Monumental bureaucracy is another remnant of the old way. The legwork and paperwork needed to obtain documents and permits necessary to live and work in the country legally were formidable and included multiple signings
of multiple copies of Czech documents; trips to the local labor department, the police department, the school’s attorney, a futile pilgrimage to the Czech consulate in Slovakia; and, finally, a successful journey to the Czech consulate
in Vienna. Waiting in line played a major part in most of these activities. As the Czech Republic is now part of the EU, legalities are bound to change. Representatives of good schools will tell you exactly which documents you are responsible
for, do the local paperwork for you, and pay for any travel required for you to become a legal employee and resident.
Pay is perfectly adequate for living comfortably and traveling within the Czech Republic and to Eastern countries such as Slovakia and Poland. However, it is near impossible to save money, and travel to other EU countries
is expensive. Paying Czech taxes makes foreign employees eligible for free, or extremely inexpensive, healthcare.
Housing was provided by school. During my stay in Nymburk, my housemate and I inhabited a fabulous seventies cube house with a big garden. Down to the décor, it was fantastically retro. Other teachers lived in panelaky,
egg-carton style Soviet-era panel apartment blocks. The apartments I’ve seen ranged from cozy and comfortable to chic.
Train travel around the Czech Republic is accessible and inexpensive. A Karta Zed, obtainable at larger railway stations for 200 Koruna (about $10), a passport-sized photo, and a flash of the passport, entitles the bearer
to system-wide discounts on 1-way tickets.
The Czech Republic has an enormous range of sights and activities to offer in the form of countless castles and churches, museums, breweries, and regional festivals. A positive aspect of Communism was that the government
fully supported and subsidized anything to do with sports, including some outstanding facilities still open today. Outdoor pursuits such as hiking, fishing, camping, bicycling, tennis, European football, as well as skiing and snowboarding in
winter, are popular. I was invited to a number of barbecues at which the main entertainment consisted of well-organized table-tennis tournaments.
In the fall, mushrooming becomes the national sport. There’s nothing like stumbling through a dark, wet forest clutching a knife, eyes glued to the ground, hunting for houby (mushrooms). It’s easy to become completely
obsessed in hopes of finding enough houby to make smazenice, a foul-looking but absolutely delicious traditional dish of fried mushrooms and egg.
Though they may seem initially reserved, Czechs are friendly and hospitable. They take great pride in their country and their history and are happy to share it. Czech is not an easy language to learn, but living in a place
where I had to pick up enough Czech to function—and wanted to pick up a bit more to make life fun—my language skills went from terrible to terribly amusing. I was able to communicate, and people appreciated the attempt and intent.
Had I lived in Prague, as beautiful as it is, my experience wouldn’t have been as full because it is easier to gravitate toward the known, and I doubt I would have made the same effort.
I’ve come away from my Czech adventure rich in experience and friends, who even gave me a special name. In English, I go by "Tree." My Czech friends call me "Stromka," the made-up female diminutive
of strom (tree). I treasure that reminder of my wonderful year in Bohumil Hrabal’s “little town where time stood still.”