It’s been almost two years since I moved from Prague, after being there for four years learning Czech and getting a Masters degree in International Relations. When I think back to the experience I had there, and try to summarize my experience, I’m conflicted. Was it difficult to be a foreigner there? Yes, for sure. Do I think the time I spent in the Czech Republic was worthwhile? Without a doubt. What I ultimately found is that these things aren’t mutually exclusive, quite the contrary.
Almost every Czech I met in Prague, were always amazed by why I, a native of Florida, had chosen to leave the beach to live in Central Europe and learn Czech. The reason for me was simple. Speaking Czech allowed me to study for free in the public university, which coming from the US and its extremely high tuition fees, is a serious incentive. Additionally, it allowed me to live in a European capital with great public transportation, remarkable levels of safety, a rich cultural life, and affordable living standards. This answer which seemed so obvious and worthwhile to me, was typically met with skepticism and disbelief by the Czechs whenever I tried to explain it to them.
But when it came to actually living and trying to feel relaxed in the Czech Republic, the confidence in this life choice of mine could be put under strain. At times it was extremely challenging. I spent two years learning Czech in a daily, intensive course, which felt more like a kindergarten than a university by all accounts. Then there were the social things like struggling to find an apartment that would accept a foreigner or the indifference of Czechs at my attempts of friendship. Or there were the more technical things like understanding the complex visa or university procedures. Even worse, there were instances where I was actually worried for my safety such as when some drunken hooligans threw a firecracker at a friend and I. These experiences were disheartening and at many points, made me feel uncomfortable in the city that I had grown to call home.
Yet, despite these instances, I still look back at my time in Prague as positive. For the second half of stay in the Czech Republic when I was studying for the Master’s, it was much in part to my Czech classmates that I was able to follow and eventually, pass my courses. They would explain things that I couldn’t catch in Czech and help me navigate the complicated university system. Very rarely could I offer them much in return, except for the occasional English proofreading. But still, they treated me with respect and camaraderie and this felt like a victory.
Learning Czech obviously impacted my experience. While speaking the language of the country you live in is always useful, it’s pretty common for foreigners living in Prague to not learn Czech. It was a difficult language to learn and the opportunities of using it in any meaningful way are obviously limited. It could feel ungratifying, particularly when Czechs insisted to use English, no matter what your level was.
Actually one of the biggest advantages I gained from learning Czech was secondary to the language acquisition. Through my Czech courses, it put me in touch with other foreigners living in the Czech Republic who were also committed to learning Czech, which was proved to be a very powerful experience. There was the animated Spanish girl escaping the Spanish crisis with ambitions to study at the prestigious Czech film school. The Syrian who excelled, according to him thanks to evenings sat in front of Czech television. The dozens of half Czechs who had returned back to their roots to learn the language their parents who fled during communism had neglected to teach them. All of us, united in our struggle to learn Czech, became what I call my fellow soldiers in the war against Czech language. While I mean that in jest, the experience of doing something like this together at the same time was a group of people who felt just as vulnerable and confused as I was, helped me ease into life in the Czech Republic.
After Prague, I moved to Paris for Erasmus. There, I also had to explain often why I had spent the past four years in ‘la Republique Tchèque’ (or even the occasional ‘Tchécoslovaquie’). The responses were almost the same that I had experienced in Prague. The French were just as puzzled as to why anyone would learn Czech just for some free university tuition. Yet on the contrary, the French were not puzzled at all as to why I would’ve come to Paris for studies, this must have been a dream come true. In reality, the university administration, visa procedure, housing, and ludacris cost of living, made living in France much more burdensome and less enjoyable than my life in Prague had been. I don’t attribute this to some French arrogance but rather that what a country tells itself about the life of offers to the foreigners who live there is not always what it is in practice.
Today I live in Brussels for work, where it’s quite usual to be a foreigner. No one ever asks you why you moved here, it’s always assumed that it’s because of work. Here I don’t have to worry about racist hooligans or disbelief when I attempt to speak French.
Despite this, I still miss Prague and the life I had there. Maybe it was because I had put so much effort to overcome the difficulties I met in the beginning that when those things got easier, it was very gratifying. Or perhaps it’s because living as a foreigner in Prague gets a much worse reputation than it deserves. Either way, I’m grateful for the time I spent there and wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.