90s Prague: Perfectly different for a young Irishman

Today the V4 countries tend to “export” economic migrants to the more prosperous West – take for instance the thousands of Poles or Czechs earning their living in Great Britain or Ireland. But can you imagine that it used to be the other way round? Yes, those were the good old roaring 90s …

Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 Petr S.

Given the hardships others leave behind I feel rather frivolous calling myself an economic migrant. But that is what I am. If Ireland hadn’t had high unemployment – 18%, if memory serves – in the period after I graduated from university I never would have thought about leaving 22 years ago.

Considering how much I appreciate life in Prague, and the opportunities it has afforded me over the years I sometimes shudder at the randomness with which I ended up living in the city.

A friend took a year out from studying with the idea of travelling across Europe (no idea now where he was eventually headed) but he liked Czechoslovakia so much, he decided to stop halfway.

He wrote me a letter in April or May of 1992: Prague’s brilliant, he said. If you can scrape up any money at all you’ll have a great time. Come!

So began the best summer of my life, and my relationship with my future home. Back in Ireland I devoured every Czech book in the local library and plotted a move, which I duly made 12 months later. Expecting I would stay for a year or two, teach a bit of English and see what happens.

It was a pretty wild period in Prague in those days. It’s hard to conceive of today, but Obecní Dům and Slovanský Dům were still awaiting post-1989 renovation and my friends and I spent much of our time hanging out in bars in one, and at a club in the other. These amazing places were our playground.

My first employer was a dodgy English school that was in cahoots with a bent doctor, and only had two medical cards – one for the male teachers, one for the female ones. Their “thing” was that they didn’t have books. They didn’t pay taxes either, which I learned years later when I got a call asking where my records for 1993–1994 were.

I had acquired a “TEFL” certificate after a two-day “course” in Dublin and at first didn’t know a past participle from a hole in the ground. But there was a thirst for English, it was easy to get hired if you were a native speaker and I learned on the job.

Czech was mind-bendingly difficult and I didn’t expect to stay at first, so it was probably two years before I was capable of doing more than ordering beers. Shops where everything was behind the counter were an ordeal.

The bureaucracy was challenging, too. Though I now understand they had to have systems, getting to grips with the oceans of red tape took some doing. The word “superlegalizace” (having a legal document from another state authenticated) still makes me shudder.

That said, it was very clear to me that it would be far harder – virtually impossible – for a Czech to get a work permit in Ireland or another European Union country in those days. And at all times I was aware that nobody had invited me.

In the early days what I liked about the Czech Republic was that it was different enough from my own world to be constantly interesting, but not so different as to be overwhelmingly, impossibly alien.

Staying wasn’t something I planned. When Ireland’s economy started taking off, going back had been an option. But I had become so content after a few years in Prague, it was never entertained at any great length. Now leaving is unthinkable.

Looking back, I realize that I only very slowly began to really get to know Czech culture and society. I would read the scant English language media, but it wasn’t until years later when I got a job translating at the Czech News Agency, CTK, that I actually developed a strong sense of what was what.

A couple of friends had gone from CTK to Radio Prague and I eventually followed the same route. Within a few weeks of starting, I had interviewed two members of Monty Python. This was the job for me!

Over the years I have covered important events, such as the Czech Republic joining the EU. But I have also seen how the country has become increasingly uninteresting to editors elsewhere. Wasn’t it Miloš Zeman who once said the country would do well to become as boring as Austria?

More recently Zeman has attracted some attention back to the Czech Republic, winning international headlines for his offensive comments about Muslims and refugees. I myself have made a few euros out of his populist poppycock, though I would prefer to have less cash in my wallet and live somewhere where the head of state doesn’t appear on stage with racists and hatemongers.

The whole “debate” about refugees has been dispiriting to say the least. It’s fine being proud of your country. But if Czechs really think hordes of people in far-flung spots are dreaming of settling here, they’re simply deluded.

In the 1990s I would come across anti-foreigner sentiment reasonably often. But in the main it was harmless, evidently stemming from bitterness about Westerners’ loud voices and perceived greater wealth and perhaps just a lack of experience of any real “other”.

Today’s brand of xenophobia is something far, far more dangerous and genuinely worrying. Along with some other political developments in the last couple of years, it has made the present the least pleasant time to be in this country since I first arrived.

But Prague is still a great place to live. The pace of life is perfect for me. It’s not so big so you can often get where you need on foot. People aren’t aggressive, or if they are it’s my favorite type: passive aggressive (I can’t get hurt). It doesn’t look too bad, either. I’ve built a nice life here. It’s home.

Ian Willoughby

Ian Willoughby

studied English literature and philosophy at University College Dublin. He is a journalist with Radio Prague, the international service of public broadcaster Czech Radio, and also works for other media outlets.